Trees Topple; Environmentalists Race for Solutions

Mastic-While some environmentalists, state officials and others were hoping for a compromised agreement to save some or all of the bucolic pine barrens stands in the midst of two preserved woodlands, tree felling began on the Middle Island Solar Farm property in Mastic on Feb. 28. Sixty acres have been cleared, confirmed MISF managing partner Gerald Rosengarten.

Brookhaven Town requires that 40 acres of the 100-acre parcel remain as a buffer.  According to Rosengarten, while the trees have been cleared, the stumps remain. 

“That process is just underway and takes time,” he said in an email. 

But officials are still trying to shine a light, so to speak, at the end of the trees. 

A bill was reintroduced in the New York State Legislature by Assemb. Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) and Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) to expand the pine barrens core preservation area that includes Shoreham property as well as Rosengarten’s property, and 220 acres in Mastic Woods of other privately owned land, “the largest remaining undeveloped property within the Forge River watershed,” the pine barrens expansion bill says.

According to Stephen Liss, Englebright’s chief of staff, “both Sen. LaValle and Assemb. Englebright have added the same language of the bill as the one vetoed. It would encompass all of the property mentioned.” 

“Basically, both bills were approved by the committees and are awaiting a vote in their respective houses,” said Bruce Blower, LaValle’s director of communications.  

“Right now, it’s two different ways of approaching. One is what was introduced, the other is two one-house budgets for Assembly and Senate.  In both those versions they had those properties put in. If it’s approved, it becomes law. The governor is the key to getting this passed.”

Environmentalists have pointed out that even if the entire 60 acres were taken down, there is the remaining 40-acre buffer left that could be preserved on the MISF property, and also that the woodland can regenerate under certain conditions.

The project is reaching a contentious culmination that included confusing MISF testimony to the planning board regarding PPAs, a hired lobbyist by Rosengarten to convince Gov. Andrew Cuomo not to preserve this parcel and environmentalists like Citizens Campaign for the Environment executive director Adrienne Esposito, who nixed last year’s preservation bill overwhelmingly passed by Englebright and LaValle that would have kept Rosengarten’s trees intact. In a letter dated Aug. 16, 2017, Esposito asked for the veto of the bill as currently written, or ensure a land swap.

A land swap, Esposito said, was what she was pushing for. 

“Unfortunately, the deal fell apart,” she said. “We had a deal in December that was reasonable and doable. There’s no good reason the swap couldn’t have happened. Not one. There was an easy solution that was ignored.”

A flurry of letters passed between Rosengarten and Brookhaven supervisor Ed Romaine the last four weeks emphasizing their positions.

In a Feb. 28 letter to Romaine, Rosengarten stated MISF’s attempt to swap 20 acres of the MISF property associated with Phase 2 in exchange for 20 acres at the landfill for a solar project and was shocked at finding out in a daily newspaper that the town intended to use the landfill for its own energy park. “No mention was made of any negotiations with my team and thus it appears that the town has withdrawn its offer,” the letter says. Rosengarten mentions his goal to preserve as many trees as possible and ends the correspondence saying, “Mr. Supervisor, we are waiting for your call.”

A March 2 letter from Romaine states the town proposed the use of several pieces of land in exchange for the preservation of the entire Mastic Woods parcel that was rebuffed by MISF. “We subsequently were contacted by your representatives with a proposal which would have only protected five acres of land and resulted in trees being ‘topped’ in another three acres. Clearly we find that insufficient. Subsequently, the town received an offer from another entity interested in developing solar at the landfill,” Romaine said. 

In a March 9 letter, Rosengarten rebuts the town. 

“While you have never formally presented us with locations of such land, it is clearly untenable to cut our 60 acres into ‘several pieces of land located in the Town of Brookhaven,’ as you have suggested. All of this was clearly communicated to you and your staff,” Rosengarten’s letter says.  Rosengarten also questioned the town’s claim about the five-acre MISF proposal. “This is news to me,” he said. 

Rosengarten pointed out that the property was L1 zoned industrial and a less environmentally minded project to construct storage warehouses would have resulted in most of the trees being cleared and increased car and truck traffic in the area.

A town official said, “Rosengarten refused an offer in December seeking to preserve the entire parcel. And we’re working with Assemb. Engelbright and Sen. LaValle to find an alternative site for the entire project and are continuing to do so.” 

In December 2017, Romaine told the Advance that Rosengarten was offered to develop 22 acres at the landfill for solar with 18 more acres in 2018 for a land swap as well as offering to obtain the entire parcel outright. In 2016, Romaine had agreed to partner with the county when Legis. Kate Browning (WF-Shirley) was in office. 

A Brookhaven Town official said last week there were two phases approved by the planning board for the takedown, one for 40 acres, the other for 20. 

When noise complaints came in last week, a town official said operation of heavy equipment fell under noise ordinance; the permit allows the hours of operation from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. for large projects. 

“You have to apply to the commissioner of public safety for a weekend variance,” the town official added. “So just for Saturdays, they have a noise variance application.” 

That work is limited from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and MISF received it for five Saturdays, from March 3 to March 31. 

But MaryAnn Johnston, Affiliated Brookhaven Civic Organization president, who, with the Long Island Pine Barrens Society has filed an Article 78 against the town, took issue. “Why is there a permit posted on the site that says work must be 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. and no clearing on weekends and holidays? How is the public supposed to know about this and why didn’t the permit say what this man is going to do?”

Rosengarten was asked to comment about Cuomo’s office and the directive to come up with alternate solar sites to several entities that might be appropriate for the MISF project.

Rosengarten said he wasn’t aware of any lists of alternative sites and hadn’t been approached with any formal proposals for swaps. “The MISF team remains open to this discussion,” he said in an email statement.

Initial efforts by the town, Long Island Pine Barrens Society, New York Department of Environmental Conservation and the Central Pine Barrens Joint Planning and Policy Commission after a meeting in Cuomo’s Manhattan office in January to come up with alternative solar sites that could be utilized caused a dust-up when the Central Pine Barrens group reneged on Feb. 28.

“John Turner and I met with [executive director of the Central Pine Barrens Joint Planning and Policy Commission] John Pavacic on Feb. 2 at their headquarters in Westhampton,” said Long Island Pine Barrens executive director Richard Amper. “We saw a comprehensive map of where it would be useful to protect pine barrens and where solar can be directed. Then he backed off after a Feb. 28 meeting with the commission.”

Brookhaven Town Division of Land Management open space coordinator John Turner confirmed the map. 

“It was an exercise they took seriously and they were able to identify potential sites,” he said. “There was enough property and acreage to move Rosengarten’s power potential several times over.” 

In Brookhaven Town, over two-dozen sites have been identified, said a town official. 

The commission was asked why they reversed direction when they were specifically charged by the governor to come up with alternatives in his December veto explanation.

Apparently, there was a change of heart. 

“The Central Pine Barrens Joint Planning and Policy Commission and its staff continues to work with the governor’s office and other stakeholders to assess public lands that may be suitable for the solar farm project,” said Tim Motz, director of communications, in a statement.

Meanwhile, a temporary restraining order, filed by the Affiliated Brookhaven Civic Organization and the Long Island Pine Barrens Society on Feb. 28, backed off the tree felling, but it was only for three days.   

“It was granted, we notified the town and applicant and the town did not oppose it,” said Johnston, adding the TRO was presided over by Suffolk County Supreme Court Justice William G. Ford, who is overseeing the Article 78.  “We cited exigent circumstances,” she said. “We were back in court on March 2. The court did not feel bulldozers on the site were exigent enough.” 

The exigent circumstances included the pending Englebright/LaValle resolution and Cuomo’s statement that he hoped an alternate siting solution could be reached and that his office was currently evaluating the appropriateness of the clearing. 

“We’re back in court on March 29 on a preliminary injunction,” Johnston said.  “Rosengarten didn’t have the PPAs until 2018. Our job is to make sure the town code is adhered to.” 

Johnston emphasized the renewable energy systems zoning code for solar, amended and passed by the town board Oct. 27, 2016, which says solar energy production facilities are permitted on lands previously cleared or disturbed before Jan. 1, 2016.

“And it’s now 2018 and he’s clearing his land now. We will prevail on the code,” she said.

By Linda Leuzzi, Long Island Advance

Check out the original publication of this article here