N.S. Planning Board signs off on solar
Panel approves energy zone as compliant with comp plan
NORTH SMITHFIELD – It took the panel some time, including several silent contemplative pauses, but the Planning Board did finally state Thursday night that it finds a proposed solar array overlay district to be compliant with the town’s comprehensive plan.
The panel’s members ultimately accepted member Lucien Benoit’s wording for a recommendation that the solar array overlay district now being considered by the town council as an amendment to the town’s zoning ordinance “is not in-compliant with the comprehensive plan.” Benoit also agreed to include in his motion exceptions offered by Scott Lentz, planning board chairman, that panel’s recommendation “makes no comment on the size” of an array layout that could be covered by such a district and also no comment on whether the town’s zoning board should be excluded from the review process – as was proposed by the project developer.
The planning board’s recommendation does not take up the specifics of the proposed Green Energy LLC solar farm, on about 200 acres of land atop Whortleberry Hill off Greenville Road and Route 146, but it members heard plenty
about the plan from the developer’s attorney John Mancini, and a group of local residents who oppose it, before taking the vote.
The meeting in Primrose Fire Station hall also included a similar vote by the planners to state they did not find the zoning amendment in-compliant with the list of uses included in the comprehensive plan, and again with the exceptions of not making comment on the size of an array layout that could be covered or whether the zoning board should be excluded from the review.
The town council is expected to continue its review of the overlay district amendment to zoning at its meeting at the middle school on Monday. Two members of the council, John Beauregard, president, and Terri Picciotti Bartomioli, attended the planning board meeting but made no comment during the session.
Early on in the meeting, the planners agreed to endorse some changes made to the proposed overlay district ordinance by Town Planner Tom Kravitz that seek to address some of the local concerns raised during the town council’s initial April 23 hearing of the proposed zoning amendment. One recommen-
dation by the planners included wording that a tax stability agreement of a certain benefit to the town would be for 20 years, as currently allowed by state law, and also that the financial amount of a decommissioning bond to restore the property after its use also be included in the approval process. The board also recommended Kravitz’s proposed addition that the district could not be expanded once it was set by the council
Planning board member Dean Naylor noted that there was a “disparity” between the developer’s proposed use of the property for 25 or 40 years and that the fact that state law only allows for 20-year-long tax stability agreements while explaining his proposed recommendations.
Mancini said the developers actually would want to renegotiate such a tax treaty after the 20-year period since the town could charge higher taxes on solar development without it. He also indicated Green Energy had no problem with setting a decommissioning bond or prohibiting future expansion of the overlay district. “We do not want it to grow,” he said of the proposed overlay area.
The resident comment portion of the meeting likely left the planners with much to think about as all of the residents standing indicated they
opposed the solar farm, for a variety of reasons ranging from environmental impacts of clear cutting 200 acres of local forest, to the potential for using harmful chemicals to retard the regrowth of vegetation or clean the generating surfaces of the solar panels.
Paul Bilodeau, who described himself as a local resident since 1971, asked if the planning board had done any research on Green Development and its experience level with such developments and also questioned why the planners would allow “someone to come in and strip 200 acres of trees.”
Bilodeau said his own research showed that when companies cut down 200 acres of trees to install solar arrays “its called solar strip mining to set up solar panels.”
Calling the process the “exact of opposite of what ecologists do,” Bilodeau said “the worst thing you can do is cut down all these trees and put up solar panels. It outweighs the benefits,” he said.
Bilodeau said the solar farm would also have to use hazardous chemicals to control weeds from growing around the panels and that could also threaten the watershed in the area.
Mike Rapko, a resident of the neighborhood where the
solar farm is proposed, told the planners that their action on whether the overlay district was consistent with the comprehensive plan should have come earlier in the process and not still be under review as the council works on its review.
“You should proceed forward with issuing a recommendation that it is not compliant with the comprehensive plan,” Rapko said.
Rapko also urged the planners to consider information prepared by the Town of Exeter on whether another solar proposal by Green Energy in that community was consistent with that community’s comprehensive plan. The Exeter proposal was for 27 acres and now Green Energy’s North Smithfield ordinance is for parcels larger that 80 acres, he noted.
And while the town council and the planning board would be reviewing whether the proposal meets the terms of current zoning ordinance guides on such developments under the change, Rapko asked why the council should be involved with zoning when it should more traditionally be dealing with the financial issues of such a development.
“I think you should go slow and do it correctly,” Rapko said, while offering more time was needed to review the overlay district.
Dr. Cynthia Roberts voiced the strongest opposition to the overlay district while running down a list of potential property and environmental impacts that might result from the new solar farm.
A local resident for twothirds of her life, Roberts argued that the proposal would significantly impact the environment of the town and also contribute to statewide impacts when combined with similar such developments on clear-cut forested lands.
“First and foremost there should be a statewide moratorium on solar developments,” Roberts said while calling for state action on a policy to regulate their environmental impacts.
The recent rush of proposals for solar arrays shows that developers are attempting to gain access to “our pristine lands and also to gain power over our communities,” she said.
Roberts asked why a town as small as North Smithfield and a state as small as Rhode Island would want to permit the clear cutting of its forests when there are other areas better suited to large solar developments that do not require such environmental impacts.
“It is just a bad plan to deforest land for a solar array,” she said. Trees, she said, can mitigate changes of climate, provide shade for the land and prevent soil erosion.
“Why would we voluntarily decimate our land for such a short term investment,” Roberts told the planners.
While not responding to the concerns individually, members of the panel did suggest that current land use regulations would allow things such as cutting down trees on the property to occur regardless of the overlay district’s approval.
“People do have property rights and the owners of property have the right to do things with their land within the regulations of zoning,” Naylor explained. Nothing in the ordinances currently prohibits a property owner from cutting down their trees if they choose to do that, he said.
North Smithfield resident Mike Rapko, right, stands to speak out during the public comment portion of a North Smithfield Planning Board meeting this week, held to decide whether solar farms would fit the town’s comprehensive plan.