By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff
Video by JOANNA DETZ/ecoRI News staff
HOPKINTON, R.I. — On a recent Saturday morning, two days before the Town Council was scheduled to meet, to continue a hearing on a zoning change requested by the developer of a proposed utility-scale solar project, 13 concerned residents gathered at an Old Depot Road home to discuss their opposition strategy.
Some of those sitting in the living room of Joe and Paula Moreau had never met their gracious hosts. Others in the room, who also live on the rural dead-end street, had never actually spoken to one another. Their busy lives, however, intersected on this sunny, late morning around a project they say would drastically transform their neighborhoods.
Anthony DelVicario of Rhode Island Solar Renewable Energy III LLC, 43 Creston Way in Warwick, wants to install thousands of solar panels to generate 13.8 megawatts of electricity on nearly 62 acres of private forestland off Route 91. This proposed array would be built on three lots: one at 350 Woodville Alton Road, one at 6 Townsend Road, and a third on an adjacent site that was once used as a municipal landfill and then as a private dump. The project originally proposed 17 megawatts on 95 acres and would have included the clear-cutting of an estimated 7,000 trees.
DelVicario doesn’t own the land, which is framed by Alton-Bradford Road (Route 91), Woodville Alton Road, Old Depot Road, and Townsend Road, Route 95, the Wood River, and the Black Farm State Management Area. He has told the Town Council the sale is under agreement.
The project is one of five solar arrays currently under consideration by town officials, according to a June 18 Planning Department memorandum. The other four proposals call for a total of 6.2 megawatts on 14 acres:
GD Hopkinton: Palmer Circle area, Green Development LLC, 4.4 megawatts, 6 acres, zoned commercial/manufacturing.
Main Street: Hawkins property, 250 kilowatts, 1 acre, zoned commercial/manufacturing.
Alton-Bradford Road: Trombino property, 1.3 megawatts, 6 acres, zoned commercial/manufacturing.
Main Street: Kenyon Farm, 250 kilowatts, 1 acre, proposed under farm viability ordinance.
The town has already approved a dozen solar projects, totaling 42.4 megawatts on 152.5 acres:
Bank Street: Stano Trombino, 500 kilowatts, 1.5 acres, received zoning change.
Alton-Bradford Road: Peloquin property, Rhode Island Solar Renewable Energy, 18.8 megawatts, 60 acres, received zoning change.
High Street: Eminel Holdings LLC, gravel bank, 998 kilowatts, 7 acres, received zoning change.
310 Main St.: Dubs property, 15 megawatts, 68 acres, received zoning change.
Palmer Circle: Oak Square Partners, 998 kilowatts, 5 acres, zoned commercial or manufacturing.
Gray Lane: Hopkinton Industrial Park, 1.57 megawatts, 5 acres, zoned commercial or manufacturing.
916 Main St.: Enchanted Forest, 250 kilowatts, 1 acre, zoned commercial or manufacturing.
Arcadia Road: Koczkodan Farm, 250 kilowatts, 1 acre, allowed under farm viability ordinance.
15 James Road: James Farm, 250 kilowatts, 1 acre, allowed under farm viability ordinance.
722 Main St.: Reynolds Farm, 250 kilowatts, 1 acre, allowed under farm viability ordinance.
34 Kenyon Lane: Marsh Farm, 250 kilowatts, 1 acre, allowed under farm viability ordinance.
Tomaquag Road: Simplicity Farm, 250 kilowatts, 1 acre, allowed under farm viability ordinance.
This group of concerned residents gathered after a handful of Old Depot Road residents received a certified letter in the mail about the proposed project, which requires a zoning change from residential to limited-use commercial and would go against the town’s comprehensive plan.
“He wants to change the zoning from residential to limited industrial. He wants special zoning,” Joe Moreau said to a roomful of both strangers and friends. “Is he going to return it to its natural state, as the town charter says, if the project goes belly-up? How’s he going to do that? I moved here because it’s rural.”
Project neighbors, such as Steve Wiehl, also an Old Depot Road resident, are worried that the immense project’s need to clear-cut some 60 acres will lower property values, increase stormwater runoff, degrade local wetlands, destroy wildlife habitat, and increase noise from Route 95. They're also concerned about what happens in 20 years, when the useful life of the solar panels ends. Will the property be used to host a different type of industrial or commercial project?
“I’m opposed to this project, and I’m not going away,” said a visibly upset Wiehl. “It’s garbage. It's a land grab for a small group of people. And we're all going to be affected by it. Everyone of us, from the noise issues down to the habitat. If you happen to be an animal person, your issue is going to be affected. And this goes so far beyond those of us sitting here. It's going to affect all of us locally. All of these surrounding neighborhoods and anybody that really values the way of life."
He said the town should wait for the state to catch up with how to regulate this kind of large-scale energy development in areas not zoned industrial or commercial, suggesting a moratorium is needed until more information can be gathered.
Rhode Island’s expanding renewable-energy sprawl does have Grow Smart Rhode Island and some municipal planners, especially those in rural areas, concerned. A Rhode Island Office of Energy Resources (OER) stakeholders group had been meeting monthly since last summer to address the controversial issue.
During the recently completed 2018 session of the General Assembly, the House passed a bill that would have created siting standards for wind and solar projects within each municipality, but the Senate never heard H7793. The Rhode Island Energy Resources Act, which the stakeholders group helped draft, had the support of OER, the Department of Environmental Management, the Rhode Island Farm Bureau, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the Rhode Island Builders Association, the Northeast Clean Energy Council, the Conservation Law Foundation, The Nature Conservancy, and the Audubon Society of Rhode Island.
An advisory group, a subcommittee of the OER stakeholders group, is now working to develop a solar-guidance-model ordinance for use by municipalities. A first draft has already been created and public meetings are being held. The next is scheduled for July 18.
The Town Council hearing on Del Vicario's second local solar project, which would require zoning and comprehensive plan amendments, began June 18 and continued July 2. The council will make a final decision at a future meeting, according to The Westerly Sun.
A few of the residents who sat in the Moreau’s living room that morning live in homes that are right across the street from the proposed project. They said a glint and glare study should be required.
Andy and Debra McBride, who have lived on Old Depot Road for 21 years, said they don’t believe an industrial solar project belongs in a neighborhood.
“I’m not opposed to solar, but not in a residential area that requires a zoning change,” Andy McBride said. “Solar on residential roofs is great. This isn’t that.”
ecoRI News asked the room of concerned neighbors if they preferred the private property in question be developed as homes or the proposed solar project. They unanimously said homes.
About an hour into the July 2 Town Council meeting, the project’s attorney announced that Rhode Island Solar Renewable Energy was prepared to scale back the plan even further so it wouldn’t be visible from Old Depot Road, according to The Westerly Sun story.
During the recent Saturday-morning gathering, concerned residents discussed the possibility of the project being scaled back and how that would impact their opposition.
Wiehl, for one, said the clear-cutting of forest and the environmental impact it would have is a big concern regardless of possible development concessions.
“I don’t see myself being in favor of anything involving clear-cutting,” he said. Others in the room agreed, saying the properties being eyed for development and the areas around them are home to turkeys, foxes, deer, coyotes, hawks, owls, and birds.
The group also agreed that there is a fine line to what private owners can do with their property. They believe changing zoning ordinances and ignoring the town’s comprehensive plan isn’t the proper course of action.