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Shoreham solar project critics decry 'information gap' from LIPA, PSEG Long Island

Vinnie Papa, left, and Mike Harding oppose a

Vinnie Papa, left, and Mike Harding oppose a proposed solar project, which would abut their property and could become the largest on Long Island, on Oct.10, 2014. Photo Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan

The surprise that greeted plans for a 60-acre solar-panel farm in Shoreham last month could be repeated across eastern Long Island as scores of large-scale solar projects await approval, largely outside of public view, critics say.

LIPA and PSEG Long Island, which is administering a program called the "feed-in tariff" solar initiative, have approved 51 contracts for the first wave of projects comprising around 50 megawatts of solar power.

A second wave of 76 projects for 100 megawatts has yet to be released, even though PSEG in May issued a news release saying it had selected those projects from 178 proposals.

The scope and even the location of the projects remains unclear, as no central repository of maps, conceptual drawings and project descriptions is publicly available from the utilities. A PSEG website for the program is largely geared toward developers, but the utility says it plans to expand it. LIPA and PSEG say developers and local governments are primarily responsible for disclosing that information.

Critics say that's not good enough. "We need to compel transparency," said MaryAnn Johnston, president of the Affiliated Brookhaven Civic Organization, which opposes the Shoreham project and is girding to fight it in communities from Miller Place to Manorville.

Johnston wants Brookhaven to create a new code for such farms, a plan that she said was tabled in April. Otherwise, she said, most of the projects will wind up in court. "We have a right to plan our own communities. LIPA doesn't have the right to do it, especially not in a vacuum."

PSEG spokesman Jeff Weir said the company plans to address the information gap.

"Moving forward as more of these projects have signed [contracts] with LIPA, we will work to build a better repository for information about those projects," he said. Such a repository, he said, would include a project description, location and developer name.

Plans not subject to reviews

While contracts with LIPA to buy power from the new solar farms could amount to millions of dollars annually, LIPA is not required to seek approval for them from the state comptroller and attorney general, as it is with other contracts exceeding $50,000.

PSEG spokeswoman Elizabeth Flagler said that's because they are "part of a tariff-based program" administered by PSEG.

PSEG contracts are not subject to comptroller review as part of the LIPA Reform Act.

The Long Island office of the Department of Public Service, which has recommended that PSEG improve public outreach efforts after contested transmission-line projects in East Hampton and North Hempstead, agreed with the utilities that disclosure in this case isn't LIPA's or PSEG's job.

"I would say that anyone building anything on Long Island is responsible for working not only with local governments, but also communities to make sure citizens understand what's happening and have a voice in the process," Long Island DPS director Julia Bovey said in a statement.

The first wave of 51 projects consists of large solar installations on industrial, office and retail roofs of buildings such as PC Richard & Son in Farmingdale and Costco Wholesale outlets in Melville and Commack.

But the largest projects on the list are solar installations on eastern Suffolk farmland and other land parcels.

In addition to the 9.5-megawatt solar farm in Shoreham, which would supply enough power for more than 1,700 homes, the list includes three separate solar installations totaling 9.9 megawatts on Moriches-Middle Island Road and Weeks Avenue in Mastic and Manorville, two farms totaling 6.3 megawatts at Railroad Avenue in Calverton, and a 3-megawatt farm at Tucker Avenue and County Road 48 in Southold.

Many Shoreham residents say the outreach was inadequate and came too late for residents to have a say.

Developer sPower of Salt Lake City, in a statement, declined to answer Newsday's questions, but said it "continues to be 100-percent focused on providing clean, quiet, safe renewable energy . . . and being a low-profile, responsible neighbor to the Long Island community."

Riverhead Town this year approved a measure that prohibits large commercial solar arrays on agricultural land, restricting such uses to industrially zoned properties. The law was modeled after a similar law in Southold Town.

"I think it would be pretty upsetting to both the people who visit the farmland to see in the middle of these beautiful fields these huge solar arrays, which really are an industrial use," Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter said.

But Riverhead recently approved a measure that will allow sPower to construct a 40-acre solar array on a sod farm on Edwards Avenue in Calverton. The parcel is zoned for industrial use, Walter noted.

Scope, home value concerns

Shoreham residents say they are concerned that 50,000 solar panels in the center of two developments will hurt property values and mar bucolic vistas while providing little in the way of tax benefits.

"I spoke to three appraisers who said there could be anywhere from 10 to 15 percent reduction in value" of homes near the array, said Rose Marie Princi, a real estate broker at the Coldwell Banker firm in Shoreham.

"It's absolutely absurd," said Mike Harding, a retired police officer whose home backs onto the farm's southeast border. "Property values are definitely going down. It [the array] is not an asset to our community."

Paul Moskowitz, a retired Brookhaven National Laboratory scientist who lives near the farm, in a letter to his councilwoman, offered support, but with conditions that the owners use goats or sheep to maintain grass rather than herbicides, and that night lighting be kept to a minimum.

Andre Blount, who lives next to Harding, said his issue is not with green energy. "I'm all with solar power," he said. "But not 50,000 panels in my backyard."

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