Proposed solar project would turn 40 acres into field of panels
By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff
TIVERTON, R.I. — The 72-acre farm is filled with history and habitat. Thousands of trees, a pond alive with frogs, an 18th-century farmhouse, and the grave of an American Revolutionary War soldier are among the property’s many treasures, buried or otherwise.
Julie Munafo’s family has owned Wingover Farm since the 1970s, but a pending sale could lead to the destruction of more Rhode Island open space — another act in a growing pattern that sacrifices natural resources for energy production.
The state — thanks to generous economic incentives that are energizing shortsighted development — is paying for the rampant expansion of its renewable-energy portfolio, mostly ground-mounted solar panels, with forests and farmland.
Wingover Farm has plenty of both, and they could soon be felled and covered to make room for enough solar panels to produce 11-plus megawatts of renewable energy.
ecoRI News walked much of the Crandall Road farm on Aug. 6 with Munafo. She began the hour-plus conversation speaking about the days when the property was home to a bootlegger — urban legend has it that a Prohibition-era machine gun is buried somewhere on the property and that there are underground tunnels that hid the booze.
But the 56-year-old Munafo, who grew up on the farm — she never found the tunnels as a kid, although she tried; she learned about the machine gun legend later in life — spent most of the time talking about exploring the farm’s woodlands as a child, growing garlic and asparagus as a adult, and the wonderment she still feels about a property she said has long buzzed with life.
“It’s just beautiful here,” said Munafo, who now lives in Jamestown. “The tops of the trees are like a mosaic of life.”
Munafo said the plan to build a 40-acre solar facility would decimate forest and grassland, ruin premium farmland, and destroy wildlife habitat. She noted that the property’s ecosystem supports butterflies, dragonflies, bats, toads, salamanders, foxes, muskrats, otters, deer, wild turkeys, great blue herons, egrets, blue-winged teal ducks, wood ducks, quail, pheasant, owls, bull, wood and leopard frogs, and “thousands of little creatures.”
Vegetation that would be cleared to make way for the solar panels includes Indian pipe, milkweed, princess pine, mountain laurel, and creeping myrtle. About 20 acres of American beech, white pines, sycamore maples, oaks, spruce, yellow and silver birch, and American holly would be clear-cut. Fifteen acres of corn field would be lost.
The family is torn by the pending sale of the property — Munafo, for one, doesn’t want to see the property reduced to acres of solar panels. But the family — the property is under her mother’s name — was unable to come to an agreement with the local land trust or find a buyer interested in farming, according to Munafo. She said she believes the property is selling for about a million dollars.
She said the death of her brother, David, the heart and soul of the farm, in 2014 in a motorcycle crash left the family reeling. It still hasn’t recovered.
The two dwellings on the property are currently rented by two people and the working land is leased to farmers who grow corn and hay to feed their cows. The property also includes a newish barn built by Munafo’s late stepfather and a honey house, and abuts protected land in the back.
“A farm’s land is its bank account,” Munafo said. “Farmers are always putting nutrients in and pulling nutrients out. This project will withdraw every cent and put nothing back in. It will exploit the land.”
Developer Douglas DeSimone, of Wakefield-based Douglas Enterprises Ltd., is buying the property so he can lease it to Ameresco, a large energy company that would be responsible for building, managing, and dismantling the solar array after some 20 years of use.
ecoRI News spoke by phone with DeSimone on Aug. 7. He said his company would own the property but would have nothing to do with the solar project. He noted that his business focuses on residential development, building single-family homes, condominiums, and subdivisions.
DeSimone said he originally wanted to build 70 condominium units on the property, but the Planning Board didn’t like the idea and had concerns. He turned his attention instead to solar energy and partnered with Ameresco.
The array of solar panels would be set back 700 feet from Crandall Road and there would be 50-foot buffers of trees separating the energy facility from a neighborhood to the south and a farm, Fox Meadow Farm, to the north, according to the plans submitted to the town. The project would require significant improvement to the area’s grid infrastructure.
The 11.2-megawatt installation would provide enough energy to power 1,500 homes annually, according to Ameresco.
The project is on the Planning Board’s Sept. 11 meeting agenda.
Tiverton’s solar ordinance notes that facilities “shall be designed to be compatible with continued agricultural use of the land whenever possible.” The ordinance also notes that:
“Clearing of natural vegetation shall be limited to what is necessary for the construction, operation, and maintenance of the solar energy system or otherwise prescribed by applicable laws, regulations, and ordinances. The disturbance and removal of topsoil from the site shall be limited to those areas that are required for the installation of the proposed solar energy system. The applicant shall utilize existing cleared land or that which minimizes the impact on forest and habitat.”
Rhode Island’s expanding renewable-energy sprawl has Grow Smart Rhode Island, some municipal planners, especially those in rural areas, and land trust officials concerned. Residents in Hopkinton, Coventry, and communities statewide are fighting a growing list of such projects.
A Rhode Island Office of Energy Resources (OER) stakeholders group had been meeting monthly to address the controversial issue. OER and the Division of Statewide Planning are now hosting a series of public meetings to develop guidance for communities to consider when adopting solar ordinances. The next meeting is scheduled for Sept. 13 at Westerly Town Hall, 45 Broad St., from 6-7:30 p.m.
There are three other meetings scheduled for this month: Sept. 19 at Jamestown Town Hall, 93 Narragansett Ave., from 5-6:30 p.m.; Sept. 24 at Bristol Town Hall, 400 Hope St., from 6:30-8 p.m.; and Sept. 26 at the Department of Administration, 1 Capitol Hill in Providence, from 5-7 p.m.
The second public draft regarding solar-siting recommendations was released last month. The public comment deadline for draft two is Sept. 27. The third public draft is scheduled to be released in early October and three more public meetings are expected to be held.
The final version of the solar-guidance-model ordinance for use by municipalities is scheduled to be released Oct. 26.