By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
RICHMOND, R.I. — Like most rural communities trying to hold on to their natural character, Hopkinton is struggling with utility-scale solar energy. This year more than a dozen applications for commercial solar arrays have been submitted to the town, forcing officials and the public to address the issue.
Residents who turn out at town meetings overwhelming oppose the projects because forestland and open space would be converted to solar fields. The latest project being contested is a 13.8-megawatt solar system that will clear-cut thousands of trees on three lots.
On June 13, the Planning Board recommended that the Town Council reject the application. New siting regulations are being drafted by the town for solar applications. But Rhode Island Solar Renewable Energy III LLC and a larger project, Brushy Brook Solar, aren't subject to any future rule changes or a possible moratorium on commercial solar-energy systems.
Residents, many of whom live near the Rhode Island Solar Renewable Energy project site on Old Depot Road, finally had a chance to speak in an open forum after a four-hour presentation of the 70-acre project by the developer on July 2.
Project opponents at the July 16 Town Council meeting at Chariho Middle School urged the members to reject the zoning changes proposed by the developer, Anthony DelVicario of Warwick.
Joseph Moreau of Old Depot Road is one of more than 20 residents in the neighborhood who are against the project.
“Try to keep Hopkinton country. That's why we moved here,” Moreau said.
He explained how he researched the project for several weeks. He studied the previous business ventures of DelVicario and urged the council to consider them in its decision.
Like other residents, Moreau also implored the council to consider the long-term impacts of large-scale solar farms on Hopkinton’s woodlands and natural calm and to protect the community for future generations of residents.
“Do what’s right, not what’s easy,” Moreau said.
Sharon Davis said the project contradicts the town’s comprehensive plan that calls for protecting farms, wildlife, and natural habitat. She urged the Town Council to support a temporary hold on all commercial solar arrays and to hire an independent consultant to review the impact of the latest project.
Davis also urged the town to work with a state solar-energy siting group led by the Office of Energy Resources to develop rules for such projects. The group failed this year to pass a bill that required all municipalities to develop siting standards. But the group has the support of Rhode Island’s largest conservation groups such as the Audubon Society of Rhode Island and The Nature Conservancy.
Rosemary Theriault said the town was already suffering from a new office building built near I-95.
“Everything you do has consequences,” she said.
Approving the project and other solar proposals, she said, goes against the will of the people.
“There are so many project coming up it’s going to change the way we live,” Theriault said.
Town Council President Frank Landolfi urged several speakers not to pass judgement on the council’s intentions regarding this and future proposals.
“Some like solar and some don’t,” he said. “We have to weigh all the decisions at the end of the day.”
The Town Council and the Planning Board are scheduled to host a public workshop on the Rhode Island Solar Renewable Energy proposal July 23 at 6:30 p.m. The Town Council expects to vote on the request for zoning changes that the project requires at a meeting in August. Its next meeting is scheduled for Aug. 6 at 7 p.m at Chariho Middle School.