By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
CRANSTON, R.I. — The city is once again advancing plans to host Rhode Island's largest solar array.
On July 12, the City Planning Commission gave initial approval for a 21-megawatt solar farm on 60 acres in Western Cranston. The site, owned by a Providence real-estate company, once hosted a dairy farm but is now partially wooded and a popular destination for off-road vehicles.
If built, the Gold Meadow Farm solar array, off Lippitt Avenue near the West Warwick line, would be the largest in Rhode Island by far. The Forbes Street landfill solar system in East Providence is currently the state’s biggest, at 4 megawatts. That project has approvals to double in size. If built, it would still be overshadowed by the proposed Gold Meadow Farm array, which could host more than 60,000 solar panels.
What is rural?
A significant point of contention is whether the proposed Gold Meadow Farm conforms to the rural character of the neighborhood. Principal planner Jason Pezzullo and city planner Peter Lapolla argued that it does.
“Solar farms are, in part, rural in nature,” Lapolla said.
Unlike homes, he said, solar arrays don’t require municipal infrastructure such as water, sewer and new roads. They put few demands on police and fire services, and they don't bring in school-age children. Each new home, Lapolla said, costs the city about $13,000 a year, every year, above the property taxes the homeowner pays.
Both Lapolla and Pezzullo noted that the parcel was approved for a 39-home development last fall, but, in recent months, the owners decided to go solar.
Pezzullo was delighted about the switch, because, he said, that it's next to impossible to prevent a large housing subdivision from being built in a rural area.
“We don’t have many opportunities to prevent residential housing,” he said.
Homes are permanent but solar arrays, Pezzullo said, can be easily removed at the end of their useful life — about 20 years — allowing the property to return to open space.
“This is a land-preservation strategy,” Pezzullo said.
Resident Douglas Doe lives near the proposed site and criticized the city for not following the lead of neighboring communities by amending its zoning rules for solar projects.
“We didn’t go about this correctly. There was no foresight. There was no planning,” Doe told ecoRI News after the recent hearing.
As a result of the lax rules, solar developers are targeting the city’s open space for development, Doe said. He suggested that the city set up a task force to create guidelines for noise and natural buffs and other siting issues.
Hope Farm solar
Last December, the City Planning Commission approved the 8-megwatt Hope Farm solar array in Western Cranston. The project met resistance from open-space advocates and has since been delayed by the Zoning Board for further review of its adherence to the city’s comprehensive plan.
In May, a nearby landowner appealed the city's approval of the Hope Farm project to Superior Court. United States Investment and Development Corp. is also challenging the decision by the City Council to change the zoning regulations to allow a commercial project in a residential zone.
At the July 12 meeting of the City Planning Commission, commissioner Kimberly Bittner suggested waiting until the litigation and the Zoning Board issues are settled. Otherwise, she said, the new project could face similar appeals for not adhering to the goals of the comprehensive plan, such as agricultural preservation, scenic vistas, preservation of open space and the retention of rural landscape.
Assistant city solicitor Stephen Marsella rejected the idea, saying the new solar project is a separate application from the Hope Farm project and would require an appeal from a landowner near the Gold Meadow Farm to hold it up.
Pezzullo also noted that the political and regulatory landscape has changed in recent months, as the necessity for renewable energy has grown and approvals are advancing.
The City Planning Commission approved the project, 6-2. Bittner and Lynne Harrington voted against the proposal.
The project has many conditions to fulfill and approvals to obtain before a full application is considered. The project must next receive preliminary approval from the Development Plan Review Committee, obtain a wetlands and stormwater management permit from the state Department of Environmental Management, and meet other conditions before the application for a preliminary plan is submitted.
The developer and minority owner of Gold Meadow Farm is Southern Sky Renewable Energy RI LLC of Warwick. The company has built a 5.8-megawatt solar array on a closed landfill in Canton, Mass., a 6-megawatt array on a closed landfill in Carver, Mass., and a 3.6-megawatt array in Berkley, Mass. Southern Sky Renewable Energy RI is owned by Ralph Palumbo.