By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — The struggle between open space and renewable energy is playing out on Rhode Island farms.
Some farmers see wind turbines and solar fields as a boost to their modest and often unpredictable income. They say renewable energy can keep a farm practicing traditional agriculture instead of being forced to sell farmland — a tempting option given that Rhode Island farmland is the most expensive in the country.
“It’s been very difficult to make a living farming,” said Bill Stamp of Stamp Farms in Cranston and Exeter. “You need to advent change to survive.”
Stamp spoke at a recent hearing for a proposed rule change to the state program that gives farmland a break on property taxes.
The proposed rule, passed by the General Assembly in 2017, allows farms in the Farm, Forest and Open Space program to install wind and solar projects on 20 percent of their land without triggering a land-use tax, a process called “dual use.”
Not all farms are allowed to install commercial-scale solar and wind, meaning they generate revenue by selling the renewable electricity a farm doesn’t use for its own needs. Any open space protected by a state conservation easement or through the sale of its development rights is prohibited from installing utility-scale wind and solar projects.
Andrea Panciera of Russet Valley Farm, a 230-acre hay and beef cattle farm in Hopkinton, supports dual use on protected land where the development rights have been sold. She sees local farmers installing solar on land that isn’t protected and wants the same option.
“If you can do this on one farm, I think you should be able to do it on all farms,” Panciera said.
Renewable energy is just another form of farming, she said. “Alternative-energy structures are harvesting, farming, solar farms, and energy.”
This debate is playing out in rural communities such as Hopkinton and cities with large pockets of open space such as Cranston. Municipalities have the final say in siting regulations, but the state is trying to establish standard rules by holding public hearings to set solar guidelines that communities can adopt as their own. A bill to make the process mandatory passed the state House of Representatives this year but was never heard by the Senate.
Tess Brown-Lavoie of Sidewalk Ends Farm on the city’s West Side worried that increasing the 20 percent threshold would reduce the amount of prime farmland in the state and make farming more prohibitive for newer farmers who typically lease land. Young farmers, Brown-Lavoie said, wouldn’t have the benefit of renewable-energy revenue.
Loren Thurn of Our Kids Farm in Exeter wanted the changes to allow unfarmed land such as woodlands to be included in the percentage of land eligible for solar and wind projects. He supported growing crops, such as potted plants, and keeping livestock on land under and around solar arrays.
“It’s something we need to do a lot more research on. It’s a very definite part of our future,” Thurn said.
A letter submitted by the American Farmland Trust, Audubon Society of Rhode Island, Conservation Law Foundation, Rhode Island Land Trust Council, Land For Good, and Save The Bay requested several changes to the proposed rule. The group has asked the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM), or conservation districts, to perform annual reviews of conservation plans, which are required to receive the state farm and open space designation.
Currently, no entity checks on whether farms are complying with their conservation plans and there are no set standards for what is required in a conservation plan, according to the letter.
The environmental groups asked that buffers, access roads, and infrastructure for renewable-energy projects be included in the 20 percent land-use calculation. They noted that vegetation, not crushed stone, should be grown around and under renewable projects. They suggested that the projects limit disruption to farmland and open space and the landscaped buffers make the land appear natural to neighbors.
Ken Ayars, chief of DEM’s Division of Agriculture, said the point of the new rule is to support both agriculture and renewable energy.
“Finding that balance is very important but ultimately we cannot allow degradation of the underlying soil and lose its capacity to be a viable farm,” Ayars said.
The comment period for the proposed rule changes ended Oct. 24. DEM can now file the new rules with the secretary of state, file the rules and regulations with minor changes, not file the rule changes and let the exiting rule stand, or make new changes and hold another public hearing.