Statewide Planning Opinion of Burrillville Power Plant Unprofessional, Biased

Editor’s note: Keep Rhode Island Beautiful prepared the following review of the Statewide Planning advisory opinion concerning the Clear River Energy Center proposed for Burrillville, R.I.

On March 10 of last year, the Rhode Island Energy Facility Siting Board (EFSB) requested an advisory opinion from the state Department of Administration’s Statewide Planning Program concerning three basic issues concerning the development of the proposed Clear River Energy Center (CREC) in Burrillville.

One of these issues concerned “the facility’s consistency and compliance with the State Guide Plan.”

On Sept. 12, 2016, the Statewide Planning Program (SPP) submitted its advisory opinion, which included the following conclusion regarding the State Guide Plan:

“The Program finds that the proposed Clear River Energy Center is consistent with the State Guide Plan including the state’s energy plan, Energy 2035; that the Project is consistent with the Plan’s goals and performance measure targets, and the Project is consistent with the Plan’s policy themes and strategies.” (page 46)

However, previously on page 24 of the advisory opinion is the following admission:

“Given the breadth of the State Guide Plan, it is inevitable that certain goals and policies will come into conflict with other goals and policies. As such, a finding of ‘State Guide Plan consistency’ cannot realistically be based on a project being completely consistent with each and every individual goal, objective, and policy found in the SGP.” (emphasis added)

It’s this inconsistency in the opinion — that the project is “consistent” with the SGP, when indeed it is literally impossible for it to be “completely consistent” — that raises serious concerns about the validity of the SPP advisory opinion.

Keep Rhode Island Beautiful has conducted a review of the SPP advisory opinion and offers the following critique that examines the inconsistencies rampant in the opinion. It should be clearly noted that this analysis was conducted by a group of residents deeply concerned about the “process” being undertaken to review the CREC. We have conducted no scientific analysis of the conclusions drawn in the opinion, we are simply using the document’s own words to illustrate the incompleteness, lack of professionalism and bias that characterizes the SPP opinion.

The SPP admits, on page 25 of its opinion, that seven elements of the Guide Plan were not reviewed because “these SGP elements primarily involve environmental and recreational considerations which are to be evaluated by the Department of Environmental Management and others.”

This statement clearly illustrates the lack of understanding by the SPP of its responsibility in providing an advisory opinion on the entire State Guide Plan, not just selected portions. What is most disturbing is that the seven elements not reviewed include those that would be the least favorable to the construction of a power plant in a rural area that contains numerous high natural resource values. The seven unreviewed elements include: Rivers Policy and Classification Plan; Nonpoint Source Pollution Management Plan; Blackstone Region Water Resources Plan; Forest Resources Management Plan; Urban and Community Forest Plan; Ocean State Outdoors: Rhode Island’s Comprehensive Recreation Plan; and A Greener Path: Greenspace and Greenways Plan for Rhode Island’s Future.

In addition, the SPP determined that SGP Element 715 (Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan for Narragansett Bay) was found “not to be applicable to the Project because it did not contain any content relevant to the project.”

However, we would submit the observation that most of the town of Burrillville lies in the watershed of Narragansett Bay — clearly illustrated on page 2.2 of Element 715. The conclusion by the SPP that Element 715 isn’t applicable in this case should be reevaluated.

In regard to the seven unreviewed SGP elements, deferring review of the goals, objectives and policies contained in these elements to other state agencies clearly violates the intent of the EFSB request, and also illustrates a lack of understanding within the SPP as to its responsibilities. The SPP was charged with reviewing the entire State Guide Plan, not just those elements selected by the SPP.

It’s not, for example, the responsibility of the Department of Environmental Management (DEM) to provide an advisory opinion on any policies approved by the SPP. DEM may provide assistance to the SPP in interpreting a particular policy, but ultimately it’s the responsibility of the SPP to provide opinions on which policies in the SGP are consistent with a power plant in Burrillville, and which policies are inconsistent. In this manner, the EFSB is provided with two lists — policies that are consistent, and those that are not — which it can use when it reviews other state agency opinions.

Unfortunately, this lack of understanding within SPP means that no review has been conducted of these seven critical elements, and hence there has been no assessment of consistency of the CREC with any state policies concerning forest resources, outdoor recreation, biodiversity, rivers, greenways or Narragansett Bay.

Unprofessionalism and bias
The issue of the “missing elements” can simply be excused by a lack of unprofessionalism that seems to characterize many state agencies recently. But lack of motivation cann’t excuse bias, or what we see as a deliberate crafting of an advisory opinion that is clearly supportive of the project.

This problem is best illustrated in the SPP’s review of one of the elements they did decide to review, State Guide Plan Element 121, Land Use 2025: Rhode Island State Land Use Policies and Plans. The purpose of this plan is to “guide future land use and development and to present State Guide Plan policies under which State and local land development activities will be reviewed for consistency.”

In Land Use 2025 are detailed the goals, objectives and policies, approved by the State Planning Council, to guide activities toward fulfillment of the primary, over-riding objectives of the plan. The first cited primary objective of the plan is to sustain Rhode Island’s unique character through use of the urban services boundary, rural centers and holistic approaches to planning.

In support of this vision statement is Objective LUO 1A, which states: Focus growth within the urban services boundary and in centers of different sizes and types; support traditional centers instead of new development.

The SPP selected this objective to review, and offered the following opinion:

“With respect to Objective LUO 1A to ‘Focus growth within the urban services boundary,’ the Project is located approximately 1.3 miles from the northwest segment of a village-centered Urban Services Boundary in Burrillville. However, the Program concludes that the chosen site, by providing immediate access to an existing gas pipeline, thereby reducing the need to extend infrastructure elsewhere, and, the fact that the USB is not intended to be (an) absolute determinant for any specific project, means the Project is not inconsistent with Land Use 2025’s objective of focusing growth within Urban Service Boundaries.”

The SPP may consider this interpretation of Land Use 2025 to be valid, but we emphatically do not. The actual wording in Land Use 2025 is as follows:

Major Concepts
Sustaining the Urban-Rural Distinction

The distinction between Rhode Island’s historic urban centers and neighborhoods and their rural natural surrounding areas is still strong. It remains the most important feature of the State’s land use pattern. Land Use 2025 identifies an Urban Services Boundary, based upon a detailed land capability and suitability analysis that demonstrates the capacity of this area to accommodate future growth. The Plan directs the State and communities to concentrate growth inside the Urban Services Boundary and within locally designated centers in rural areas, and to pursue significantly different land use and development approaches for urban and rural areas. Achieving a sound policy for appropriate growth in urban areas will allow us to preserve more of our rural landscape. Growth and preservation thus become a single issue.

The proposed CREC is clearly outside the urban services boundary — 1.5 miles to be more exact. Therefore, the CREC is clearly inconsistent with Objective LUO 1A, which once again states, “Focus growth within the urban services boundary.” Once again, the CREC is clearly inconsistent with this objective — it will be 1.5 miles outside of the urban services boundary.

Despite this clear inconsistency, the SPP persists in its advisory opinion to offer more evidence for consistency of the CREC with the objectives in Land Use 2025. Objective LUO 3C states:

“Maintain and protect the rural character of various parts of Rhode Island.” In regards to this objective, we believe that any reasonable person, be they planner, carpenter or school child, would recognize that a power plant isn’t consistent with maintaining rural character; however, the SPP seems to make a special effort to prove otherwise.

Beginning on page 39 of its opinion:

“The construction of the CREC will impact the project site itself but in the context of the ‘rural character’ of Burrillville, its impact will be minimal. The construction of the CREC would not impede the larger vision of a Rhode Island that is beautiful, diverse, connected, and compact with a distinct quality of place in our rural and urban centers”

The rationale continues: “As reported by Edward Pimentel of Pimentel Consulting, Inc., ‘Although CREC will own in excess of 67 acres, less than one-half or approximately 29.44 acres will be dedicated to the operation proper. The operation will be aligned along the rear (westerly portion) of the property, thereby maintaining in excess of 37.6 acres in a naturally-vegetated state. The site will have a naturally vegetated frontage which will provide screening from the residences situated along Wallum Lake Road.”

In regards to the above, we offer the following observations:

Mr. Pimentel has appeared before the Burrillville Zoning Board as the “applicant’s expert witness in land use planning.” Our question is, why was this particular private consultant, employed by the applicant, used to qualify the advisory opinion of a state agency?

Mr. Pimentel’s opinion is that the simple screening of the power plant by natural vegetation will suffice to retain the rural character of western Burrillville. Unfortunately, he fails to address other factors that will degrade rural character, including noise, air pollution, light pollution, and now the continual passage of tanker trucks along previously lightly traveled, rural roads.

Once again, to be fair, we could accept these issues as simple incompetence.  But in the final analysis, review of Land Use 2025 by the SPP appears to be a highly selective process. Only a few of the objectives in the plan were reviewed to inform the SPP final opinion, that: “The Program finds the Project to be consistent with Land Use 2025.”

Unfortunately, the SPP failed to consider more than 40 additional policies outlined in Land Use 2025, including:

LUP 2: Control sprawl and the urban exodus of business and industry.

LUP 4: Achieve a livable, coherent and visually pleasing environment.

LUP 14: Design open space systems and corridors to protect complete ecologic units and provide structure and character to the built environment. Maintain the openness of our western borderlands and recognize the significance of this system within the Northeast Corridor.

LUP 17: Preserve and enhance wildlife, fish and plant species diversity and stability through habitat protection, restoration, enhancement and prevention or mitigation of adverse impacts due to human activities.

LUP 23: Preserve and enhance the distinctiveness of urban, suburban, village and rural communities and landscapes.

LUP 29: Conserve and enhance desirable existing industrial areas, regional shopping areas, office complexes, and concentrations of service activities to maximize the investment and utilization of existing infrastructure.

LUP 31: Plan new or expanded public sewer and water services, highway improvements, and mass transit service, for industrial and commercial development where such development is appropriate in terms of natural constraints of the land, air, and water, and where the area is being developed at an intensity that is consistent with state land use policy and will not promote wasteful use of resources.

There are more. Not all of these policies would necessarily be inconsistent with the project, depending on how one wants to spin it. But, they remain un-reviewed nonetheless.

Our critique of the SPP advisory opinion is also incomplete. Our group doesn’t include individuals who are knowledgeable enough to address other portions of the State Guide Plan — the State Energy Plan, for example — or other parts of the original request from the EFSB to SPP, which included an analysis of the socio-economic impact of the proposed facility, and consistency and compliance with the State Energy Plan.

People more qualified than ourselves can review those portions of the SPP opinion. However, if a preliminary review by a group of grassroots citizens is able to find such glaring inconsistencies and examples of bias, what additional issues would be uncovered by a full professional review of the entire document?

For the time being however, it’s enough to say that based on Keep Rhode Island Beautiful’s review of only a portion of the document that the SPP advisory opinion is tainted and should be returned to rectify deficiencies and provide an honest, thorough assessment of the State Guide Plan that the residents of Rhode Island are entitled to.