Large Cranston Solar Project Nears Final Approval

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

CRANSTON, R.I. — Approval of a massive solar field is all but assured after the City Planning Commission ratified the preliminary plan Dec. 1. The 6-1 vote means that only minor elements of the proposal need to be addressed before final authorization is given for the 48-acre project in Western Cranston, according to the Planning Department.

The developer of the Hope Farm solar array, U.K.-based RES Americas, still needs a wetlands permit from the state and a significant alteration permit from the city before it breaks ground. RES doesn’t expect that either permit will delay or significantly change the outcome of the project. Construction could begin in spring 2016 and take six months to complete.

Opposition came from open-space advocates who preferred to see the privately owned land remain as farmland or converted to natural habitat.

Members of the West Bay Land Trust were upset that City Planning Commission member Lynne Harrington was forced to recuse herself from the hearing for speaking out against the project. Harrington’s opposition was published by several media outlets before the commission held a hearing on the proposal, which city officials said is a violation of her role on the board. Harrington is president of the West Bay Land Trust.

Cranston resident and West Bay Land Trust vice president Annemarie Bruun told the commission, “I think it’s an abrogation of her right to free speech to be precluded from participating in the duty of fulfilling her oath and considering the evidence presented here.”

City Planning Commission member Kim Bittner, who voted against the proposal, asked why the state Ethics Commission wasn’t asked to decide if Harrington should recuse herself from the hearing.

City Solicitor Christopher Rawson said the developer would have grounds to sue the city if the application is denied with Harrington voting.

“She recused herself voluntarily, which in my opinion is the correct thing to do given that she spoke against this project in previous forums,” Rawson said.

The Audubon Society of Rhode Island, which owns open space that abuts the property on Hope Road, requested that the final approval include plans to disassemble the solar array after its useful life, which is typically about 25 years. The environmental advocacy group also suggested that any displaced soil from the construction be saved for future farming needs.

The project would be expected to produce enough electricity to power 1,640 homes.

Bridget Graziano, a wetlands scientist and vice chair of the Conservation Commission, asked that the plan include provisions for stormwater runoff and that the solar panel foundations steer clear from wetlands.

The Planning Department has favored the project since it was introduced in October, mainly because they consider it a low-impact project that can easily convert back to open space.

City planner Peter Lapolla said nothing in the city’s comprehensive plan specified that this property would be protected as a farm or open space.  The land, he said, was zoned for residential development before the City Council changed the zoning last month to allow for the project.

Ten years ago, a 27-home subdivision was proposed for the site but was never built. New homes, said Jason Pezzullo, principal planner for the city, cost the city more than they bring in from property taxes.

“Anytime, anywhere houses cost the community,” Pezzullo said.

Had the subdivision been built it would have cost the city $400,000 annually for school and other services. Property taxes from the solar array would bring in $50,000 to $60,000.

“The way we look at it is net income versus negative income if there were houses there,“ Pezzullo said.

If a developer proposed a new housing development, “we can’t do anything about it unless we preserve the land or have a project like this,” he said.

The project could take weeks or months to garner final approval, which includes a mostly cursory vote from the City Planning Commission in addition to a thorough review by the Development Plan Review Commission.

“This is a very low-impact type of project,” Pezzullo said.

The property, at 840 Hope Road, is owned by Daniel Pagliarini of Honolulu. The project would consist of 938 11-foot-by-63-foot solar panels. A 6-foot-tall chain-link fence would encircle the project. If built, it would be the most powerful solar array in the state.