No vote on solar zoning ordinance amendment in North Smithfield

No vote on solar zoning ordinance amendment in North Smithfield

North Smithfield Conservation Commission Vice Chairman Mike Calo addresses the Town Council to urge a rejection of the proposed ordinance amendment that would allow a controversial solar farm to move forward to the next step of the approval process during Monday’s meeting. (Breeze photo by Lauren Clem)
Public hearing to continue May 21

NORTH SMITHFIELD – The public hearing for a proposed ordinance amendment that would allow a controversial solar farm to move to the next step of the approval process will continue to a third evening of discussion after Town Council members failed to bring the measure to a vote Monday night.

Councilor Thomas McGee, supported by Council Vice President Paul Zwolenski and Councilor Terri Bartomioli, motioned to extend the public hearing to the next council meeting in two weeks after he said the amendment approval process was moving too quickly and he needed more time to consider the available information.

“(I’ve) got to be honest with you, the overlay and the way this is rolling, it’s rolling too (quickly) for me,” he said.

Council President John Beauregard disputed McGee’s assertion that councilors needed more time to consider the information, pointing out that the Town Council has now held two hearings to consider public comment about the proposal and received additional feedback from the Planning Board during that time. If the ordinance amendment is approved, the project would still require further approval from the Planning Board and Town Council prior to the start of development.

“Nothing’s going to happen in the next two weeks, no source of information that we don’t have now,” he said.

McGee’s comments echoed those made by some residents in attendance, who said the plans for an amendment that would allow the 50 to 65 megawatt project by Green Development, currently the largest under consideration in the state, to move forward moved too quickly from when they first came to the public’s attention to consideration by the council.

“The community has barely had a moment to digest the complex legalese and already it seems like you might be able to vote tonight,” said Cynthia Roberts, a former Planning Board member who said she wanted more transparency in the approval process.

During close to three hours of public comment and discussion by the council, concerned residents brought up many of the same issues posed at the April 23 public hearing, including the clear-cutting of approximately 200 acres of trees, earth removal and erosion on Whortleberry Hill, possible contamination of the surrounding watershed area and wells, and Green Development’s decision to bypass the Zoning Board by seeking an ordinance amendment through the Town Council rather than a traditional variance that would require Zoning Board approval.

Other questions posed at last month’s public hearing, such as funding of the decommissioning of the solar project after 25 to 40 years of use and incentives to the town, were discussed during a Planning Board meeting May 3.

According to Town Planner Tom Kravitz, this discussion led to changes in the proposed ordinance amendment, which he presented to councilors at Monday’s meeting. The changes would require Green Development, as part of the preliminary plan application for the project, to present a tax agreement and incentive plan for approval by the Town Council, along with surety of financial protection for the decommissioning of the project. The changes also included a clause that any future expansion of the proposed overlay district would require another review by the Town Council and Planning Board and that any lots partially in the overly district would be considered part of the overlay district.

During the meeting, Zwolenski also proposed a change, approved by the council, that the overlay district would expire if the company did not begin construction within 12 months and complete it within three years.

While the changes seemed to address the concerns of some members of the Town Council, resident Mike Rapko, who attended last week’s Planning Board meeting, took issue with the process by which Planning Board members arrived at the changes and made their recommendation to the council. According to Rapko, members did not publicly review the town’s comprehensive plan before voting that the solar overlay district was consistent with it, an oversight Rapko said presents a legal issue.

“I don’t know how we can resolve this issue if the Planning Board didn’t review the comprehensive plan,” he said.

Several people also brought up a bill now under consideration by the Rhode Island General Assembly known as the Rhode Island Forest Conservation Act, that would ban state incentives for the development of renewable energy facilities located within 250 acres or larger of forested land. The bill, which is scheduled for public hearing by the House Committee on Environment and Natural Resources on Thursday, May 10, would impact the proposed North Smithfield project, along with other projects that require the clearing of large tracts of forested land.

“It may well impact this project, and I think everyone should be aware of that,” said Rep. Brian Newberry, of District 48, North Smithfield, Burrillville, who spoke at Monday’s public hearing and said that House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello supports the legislation.

While some residents urged councilors to wait to see the outcome of the state legislation before moving forward with the ordinance amendment, Beauregard pointed out that the bill, if it receives a vote this legislative session, would not be voted upon until the summer. Town Solicitor David Igliozzi said that whether the Green Development proposal would be grandfathered if the bill passes after it is approved would depend on the language in the final version of the bill.

McGee said that his reluctance to vote on the bill also stemmed from his reservations about the company’s decision to cut the Zoning Board out of the approval process, a decision Beauregard said was justified by the scale of the project and the appointed, rather than elected, nature of the Zoning Board.

“I don’t want to go to zoning because this is a multimillion dollar decision,” he said. “Decisions like that should be left in the hands of the people who were elected to be making decisions.”

McGee said he would be prepared to vote on the proposed ordinance amendment at the next Town Council meeting on May 21.


Where would the access points be and what landowners would benefit from this?

Again why are we not considering the top of town buildings/schools/or large box stores? Maybe an incentive for these box stores to help our community, vs making it a city by removing 200 acres of trees.

Used solar panels create 300 times more toxic waste per unit of energy than nuclear power plants. Discarded solar panels, which contain dangerous elements such as lead, chromium, and cadmium, are piling up around the world, and there’s been little done to mitigate their potential danger to the environment.

I guess nothing was learned from the many Super Fund sites in North Smithfield.