N.S. Plan­ning Board signs off on so­lar

Panel ap­proves en­ergy zone as com­pli­ant with comp plan

Woonsocket Call - - FRONT PAGE - By JOSEPH B. NADEAU jnadeau@woonsock­et­call.com

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.

Photo by Joseph B. Nadeau

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.

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