Infrastructure

Suffolk County, N.Y., Officials Vote to Pay Off $10.8M Solar Settlement

County legislators are calling for an investigation into the breach of contract surrounding a large solar project in seven county-owned parking lots.

by David M. Schwartz, Newsday / November 22, 2017
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(TNS) –– Suffolk lawmakers approved a last-minute resolution Tuesday night to borrow $7.8 million to pay off a court-ordered judgment against the county for blocking a private firm from installing solar panels in the parking lot of the Ronkonkoma LIRR station.

Both Democratic and Republican legislators said they planned to investigate the decision by County Executive Steve Bellone’s administration to block installation of the panels.

A federal court magistrate last year said the move represented a breach of contract by the county in its deal with San Diego-based EDF Renewable Development Inc. In the summer, the county made a $3 million cash payment toward the $10.8 million judgment as compensation for solar panels, steel and other equipment the developer had purchased.

“This is a travesty of the highest order. Somebody made the decision to breach this contract,” said Legis. Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore), who said he’d put in a bill early next year to investigate the decision.

When $2 million in interest costs on the borrowing and $2.7 million in lost revenue from expected lease payments are added, Cilmi said, the decision to block installation of the solar panels cost the county more than $15 million.

Legis. Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) said the county had no choice but to approve the decision, but called it “a darned shame and basically it’s lighting $10 million plus on fire.”

Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Copiague), said he would support Cilmi’s bill for an investigation next year into the decision by Bellone, a fellow Democrat.

In 2010, Bellone’s predecessor, Steve Levy, signed a 20-year agreement with enXco of San Diego — later bought out by EDF — to lease space at seven county-owned parking lots, including Ronkonkoma.

In a 47-page decision last year, U.S. Magistrate Judge Anne Y. Shields said county officials, starting in January 2012 when Bellone took office, began “intentionally stalling the Ronkonkoma project and failing to communicate” with the contractor by canceling meetings and screening calls to evade contact over the $120 million solar project.

Bellone’s administration had argued the solar panels at the Long Island Rail Road station could interfere with the Ronkonkoma Hub project, a $600 million complex of 1,450 apartments, stores, restaurants and offices, which broke ground last week.

Cilmi noted the land where the solar carports were planned are on the south side of the rail station, while the Ronkonkoma Hub is on the north side of the tracks.

Bellone’s administration this fall issued a request for proposals from developers on how to use the land, which is currently a Long Island Rail Road parking lot.

“Tonight’s vote is a major step forward for the Ronkonkoma community as we move ahead with the most significant economic development project to occur on Long Island in a generation,” Bellone said in a statement.

County Attorney Dennis Brown said efforts made in consultation with the solar developer to find alternative locations for the panels were unsuccessful.

The settlement was introduced Tuesday night as an emergency resolution.

It was approved with Democratic support and Legis. Thomas Barraga (R-West Islip). The other five Republicans opposed it, saying the resolution should have gone through the public committee process. Brown, who said the final payment is due Dec. 15, added that he didn’t know why the bill was introduced so late.

The county has a pending lawsuit that seeks to have its insurance companies pay $7.8 million toward the judgment. The companies have refused, saying the county did not file a timely claim.

©2017 Newsday Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.