Solar Projects Continue to Throw Shade at Green Space

Cranston, R.I., resident Douglas Doe has documented the destruction of forestland in his neighborhood to make room for some 60,000 solar panels. (Courtesy photo)

Cranston, R.I., resident Douglas Doe has documented the destruction of forestland in his neighborhood to make room for some 60,000 solar panels. (Courtesy photo)

Another project proposed for Cranston would clear-cut nearly 30 acres

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

CRANSTON, R.I. — A proposed 29-acre, ground-mounted solar project has neighbors concerned about a controversial issue that transcends city limits: another swath of Rhode Island marked for clear-cutting to make room for a renewable-energy project.

“I want to make it super clear that this isn’t about the project across the street,” said Natick Avenue resident Drake Patten, who lives and works across the way from the mostly wooded site. “What we’re concerned about is what is happening in Rhode Island in general. This project has given me an opportunity to be part of the larger conversation.”

Neighbors, such as Patten, of the proposed 8.1-megawatt solar facility support renewable-energy growth but, like many others in the state, favor the responsible siting of utility-scale projects.

Patten owns Cluck!, an urban agricultural and garden business, which is situated across the street from the privately owned proposed solar site. The 40-acre property is also where she lives and farms, and where three other farmers lease land.

A group of residents, including Patten, met with state officials earlier this month to express their concern about where utility-scale solar projects are being sited statewide. Patten said they were basically told it’s a local issue.

“Cities and towns are being crushed under this and are asking for help,” Patten said. “It was disingenuous to announce a renewable-energy goal without studying the impact.”

Some Rhode Island municipalities and developers are siting industrial-scale solar projects on vacant or underused developed space. For instance, East Providence, North Providence, and South Kingstown are all using closed landfills to generate solar power. To build renewable-energy projects on landfills, brownfields, and Superfund sites, however, requires state and/or federal incentives, such as higher rates for power, grants, and low-interest loans.

In the meantime, while developers wait for Rhode Island to adopt better incentives, the state is in the midst of a solar-energy stampede into rural communities with less developed open space and regulations not yet adequate to deal with large energy projects. In this ongoing rush to clear-cut woodlands and take farmland out of production, disturbed areas, such as big-box store rooftops and parking lots, strip malls, other paved-over places, medians, and gravel pits, are largely ignored.

The Ocean State’s green-space energy rush began in earnest in spring 2017, when Gov. Gina Raimondo signed an unenforceable executive order that encouraged the state to procure 1,000 megawatts of renewable energy by 2020 — the state currently has 304. The action increased the number of renewable-energy applications being filed in cities and towns that hadn’t yet adopted regulations to address the impacts of this fast-growing industry. The problem persists today.

While the press release that accompanied the governor’s order refers to the state’s renewable-energy goal as “strategic,” some municipal planners, concerned residents, and environmentalists have called the governor’s decision “irresponsible” and/or “shortsighted,” because the executive order made no mention of where to site these projects.

In Cranston, for example, under zoning changes approved more than a year ago to the city’s comprehensive plan, a utility-scale solar facility is an allowable development, even in neighborhoods zoned residential, meaning it doesn’t require a variance or a special-use permit by the City Council.

In late 2015, the city’s planning director, Peter Lapolla, told ecoRI News that a 10-megawatt solar farm is better than an a large housing development. He noted that solar doesn’t require costly public services such as police, fire, water, sewage, and schools, nor does it create noise, traffic, and stormwater runoff.

“A solar array has little or no impact,” Lapolla said that November.

The department’s views haven’t changed, even though Jason Pezzullo replaced Lapolla early last year as Cranston’s director of planning. Pezzullo told the Cranston Herald last month that he sees the project as a means of “holding” the privately owned property until the city has the resources to conserve it, should it choose to do so, while generating tax revenue of about $55,000 annually.

Pezzullo told the newspaper that renewable energy is short term — 25 years is the projected life of the project and the term of the lease — and the property can be preserved when the solar facility is defunct. It also could be developed as a subdivision or re-upped as a utility-scale solar facility.

He estimated that if developed for single-family homes, between 15 and 25 houses could be built. He said chances of saving the property as a single parcel would be lost and the cost of city services required would exceed the taxes generated. He called solar facilities “an alternative to residential sprawling.”

Patten called the language being used to peddle these projects alarming.

“It’s been surprising to me that in our community housing is being vilified as something we shouldn’t want,” she said. “We’re vilifying housing and having to educate schoolchildren. When did planners decide housing is bad?”

She noted that building non-McMansion homes in areas zoned residential makes sense. She said what doesn’t make sense is cutting down trees and covering farmland to make room for utility-scale solar arrays when there is plenty of developed space in Cranston and statewide that could house such projects.

The developer of the proposed Natick Avenue site, Southern Skies Renewable Energy RI of Warwick, which is essentially Southern Skies Renewable Energy of Boston, is already operating or building five solar facilities in Cranston. These other projects, some of which required the clear-cutting of woodlands in residential areas, helped spark the ongoing statewide debate over the siting of renewable-energy projects.

The continuation of the project’s public informational hearing is on the City Planning Commission’s Jan. 8 meeting agenda. The commission is also expected to discuss an ordinance that would place a moratorium on solar facilities.

An informational meeting with the Natick Avenue neighbors was held in late November and in early December Cranston officials hosted a site visit.