The war for Long Island’s environmental soul

Flare up: Both sides bleed green in a Long Island solar farm battle pitting environmentalist vs. environmentalist.
By GREGORY ZELLER //

New York State may be a national environmental leader, but it’s not as easy being green on Long Island, where an environmental civil war is raging.

Both sides claim the “green” flag in this conflict, which pits the Island’s past against its future – represented here by old-school NIMBY behaviors and new-age solar harvesting – and ripples across multiple markets.

Gerard Rosengarten: A nose for NIMBYism.

Insiders say the issue will not only decide the fate of two proposed Suffolk County solar farms and the lands they’d occupy, but will help plot Long Island’s socioeconomic course – with regional energy, residential and commercial development all hanging in the balance.

On June 19, both houses of the State Legislature overwhelmingly approved companion measures that would expand protections under the circa-1993 Long Island Pine Barrens Protection Act to include more than 1,000 acres in Shoreham and Mastic. The bills passed 60-2 in the Senate and 139-4 in the Assembly and now await Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s signature or veto.

Following the landslide votes, some preservationists trumpeted victory. But the bills, which specifically target two sites where large-scale solar farm projects are in development, are far from an environmental win, according to opponents who sense a serious – and frustratingly familiar – threat to Long Island’s economic development.

The larger of the two sites, in Shoreham, is owned by utility National Grid, which has proposed a 72-megawatt solar farm on 350 acres of an 800-acre plot. That long-debated project is still in its preliminary stages.

Further along is the 19-megawatt Middle Island Solar Farm, a 67,000-panel green-energy project conceived by East End condo developer (and legendary leisure suit inventor) Gerard Rosengarten. The farm, which has received full SEQRA and site approval from the Town of Brookhaven, would be built on 100 acres of undeveloped industrial-zoned land in Mastic, situated more than a mile from the well-defined Pine Barrens preservation area.

The new legislation extends Pine Barrens core protections to both the Shoreham and Mastic sites, essentially pulling the plug on both projects. The Assembly bill sponsored by Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) calls for the “inclusion of two environmentally sensitive areas located adjacent to the central pine barrens boundary” and lists a number of pressing environmental concerns.

Among them: twenty-five “distinct ecological communities” featuring indigenous bird, mammal, reptile and plant species – including “more than a dozen rare plant populations” and “the federally threatened” Northern long-eared bat, according to Bill No. A07722B.

Steve Englebright: Bat man.

Also affected – or protected – is “the largest remaining undeveloped property within the Forge River watershed,” according to the bill, which labels the river one of “the most significantly impaired waterbodies on Long Island.”

Rosengarten, managing partner of the Middle Island Solar Farm project, smells a rat.

“Something is very rotten here,” the developer said this week.

Not only does the legislation “mock” Pine Barrens law – designed to protect Long Island’s drinking water and environmentally sensitive lands from over-development – but Rosengarten and his partners dutifully jumped through environmental hoops to bring along the Middle Island Solar Farm.

“We have heeded the call of environmental leaders … to develop sustainable solar energy on Long Island,” Rosengarten said. “And we have cleared every local and state hurdle to build an environmentally sensitive project on industrial-zoned land we have owned for more than 30 years.”

Although the Mastic property is zoned for light industrial development and large-scale storage facilities, Rosengarten et al eschewed plans that would clear the site of all trees, pour concrete and create permanent truck traffic. Their proposal, they say, would preserve 40 percent of the forested land and add new vegetation under the solar panels – literally keeping the site green while helping to address Long Island’s renewable energy needs.

An Environmental Impact Statement attached to the project revealed no adverse impact on the aquifer or any body of water – and said the Middle Island Solar Farm would be the equivalent of taking 6,000 cars off the road, a “carbon savings” also equal to the creation of a 25,000-acre forest parcel.

As a bonus, the project would create new access routes for the Mastic Fire Department, a fringe benefit endorsed by community members and noted by the Town of Brookhaven Planning Board while voting 7-0 in April to approve the site plan.

Further endorsements came from the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, Sustainable Long Island, Renewable Energy Long Island and other regional environmental and business-development groups.

But just weeks after the town green-lighted the solar farm, the Legislature made its move – a “backdoor Albany bill cloaked in conservation but really motivated by classic NIMBY activism of a privileged few,” according to Rosengarten.

The potential shutdown of the Middle Island Solar Farm “not only threatens our project,” the developer added, but several critical regional industries.

“[It] will threaten Long Island’s ability to fight climate change and achieve greater energy independence, as well as our ability to attract wind and solar investment in our state,” Rosengarten said. “Moreover, it will cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars to ‘buy out’ these solar projects with money the state does not have.”

Scuttling ecological efforts where landowners willingly sacrifice higher potential profits to diligently pursue forward-thinking clean-energy projects sets a “dangerous precedent that will chill investment in renewable energy in New York State” – and that “at a time when climate change denial is guiding policy in Washington,” according to Rosengarten, who’s calling on Cuomo to veto the Pine Barrens extension.

Doing so “will send a clear message that a particularly false, empty and misleading brand of NIMBYism has no place in our state and will not thwart our state’s critical efforts to truly lead in renewable energy,” the developer added.

“We won all the necessary approvals for a sustainable solar farm, only to have the rug pulled out from under us just weeks later,” Rosengarten said. “Who will invest in wind and solar in New York if the state can take down a fully approved project in an Albany backroom just weeks after hard-won approval?”