Energy

Large Cranston Solar Project Nears Final Approval

CRANSTON, R.I. — Approval of a massive solar field is all but assured after the City Planning Commission ratified the preliminary plan Dec. 1. The 6-1 vote means that only minor elements of the proposal need to be addressed before final authorization is given for the 48-acre project in Western Cranston, according to the Planning Department.

The developer of the Hope Farm solar array, U.K.-based RES Americas, still needs a wetlands permit from the state and a significant alteration permit from the city before it breaks ground. RES doesn’t expect that either permit will delay or significantly change the outcome of the project. Construction could begin in spring 2016 and take six months to complete.

Opposition came from open-space advocates who preferred to see the privately owned land remain as farmland or converted to natural habitat.

Members of the West Bay Land Trust were upset that City Planning Commission member Lynne Harrington was forced to recuse herself from the hearing for speaking out against the project. Harrington’s opposition was published by several media outlets before the commission held a hearing on the proposal, which city officials said is a violation of her role on the board. Harrington is president of the West Bay Land Trust.

Cranston resident and West Bay Land Trust vice president Annemarie Bruun told the commission, “I think it’s an abrogation of her right to free speech to be precluded from participating in the duty of fulfilling her oath and considering the evidence presented here.”

City Planning Commission member Kim Bittner, who voted against the proposal, asked why the state Ethics Commission wasn’t asked to decide if Harrington should recuse herself from the hearing.

City Solicitor Christopher Rawson said the developer would have grounds to sue the city if the application is denied with Harrington voting.

“She recused herself voluntarily, which in my opinion is the correct thing to do given that she spoke against this project in previous forums,” Rawson said.

The Audubon Society of Rhode Island, which owns open space that abuts the property on Hope Road, requested that the final approval include plans to disassemble the solar array after its useful life, which is typically about 25 years. The environmental advocacy group also suggested that any displaced soil from the construction be saved for future farming needs.

The project would be expected to produce enough electricity to power 1,640 homes.

Bridget Graziano, a wetlands scientist and vice chair of the Conservation Commission, asked that the plan include provisions for stormwater runoff and that the solar panel foundations steer clear from wetlands.

The Planning Department has favored the project since it was introduced in October, mainly because they consider it a low-impact project that can easily convert back to open space.

City planner Peter Lapolla said nothing in the city’s comprehensive plan specified that this property would be protected as a farm or open space.  The land, he said, was zoned for residential development before the City Council changed the zoning last month to allow for the project.

Ten years ago, a 27-home subdivision was proposed for the site but was never built. New homes, said Jason Pezzullo, principal planner for the city, cost the city more than they bring in from property taxes.

“Anytime, anywhere houses cost the community,” Pezzullo said.

Had the subdivision been built it would have cost the city $400,000 annually for school and other services. Property taxes from the solar array would bring in $50,000 to $60,000.

“The way we look at it is net income versus negative income if there were houses there,“ Pezzullo said.

If a developer proposed a new housing development, “we can’t do anything about it unless we preserve the land or have a project like this,” he said.

The project could take weeks or months to garner final approval, which includes a mostly cursory vote from the City Planning Commission in addition to a thorough review by the Development Plan Review Commission.

“This is a very low-impact type of project,” Pezzullo said.

The property, at 840 Hope Road, is owned by Daniel Pagliarini of Honolulu. The project would consist of 938 11-foot-by-63-foot solar panels. A 6-foot-tall chain-link fence would encircle the project. If built, it would be the most powerful solar array in the state.

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  1. Tim, thank you for covering this story. Several points, however, that I would like to clarify:
    The West Bay Land Trust is not against solar generation, or the responsible siting of such facilities, even on agricultural land. We do object to the size of the facility, the lack of regulation before approving amendments to the zoning code allowing this use on A80 residential land, and the secrecy and back-room manipulation of the administration and planning department to push through this project without public input or scrutiny.
    The site is actively farmed and on the Historic Farm Route, specifically targeted for preservation by the 2012 revision to the city’s Comprehensive Plan, despite Lapolla’s denials.
    I object to the planner’s failure to fully inform the Plan Commission, the City Council and the public of the project. Members of the commission have been warned against hearing ANY information presented to the public outside their meetings, documents are consistently presented to them only hours before those meetings, lawyers for the developers are allowed to present unsupported opinions as "facts", incomplete minutes are accepted, and the planner controls the meetings. Lynne Harrington was virtually forced to recuse herself under duress minutes before the meeting and told to remove herself from the chambers so she wouldn’t "influence" her fellow members by her presence. Members of the administration and the planning department, which have publicly and outspokenly advocated for the project, were allowed to remain, participate in the discussion, rebut comments by the public, and/or vote.

    There is no developer prepared to build housing on the land. The land is owned by a number of trusts and Pagliarini siblings, and discussions have taken place over the years to purchase the development rights to preserve the land as agricultural open space. Farmer Vinny Confreda has leased the land for 3 years, and has expressed interest in purchasing or signing a long-term lease.

    Taxes for the city, the true amount of power that might realistically be generated, and the effects on the land and surroundings have all been mere conjecture as there has been NO real studies done, only pie-in-the-sky promises from the developer and the administration. RES is a large, foreign owned energy company that is looking to take financial advantage of the lack of regulation and will of Cranston to do its due diligence in getting the best deal for its citizens. Any power generated will be sold to the grid and not directly to our community. These installations can be beneficial if done responsibly and with the informed consent of those such large projects will impact. Cranston can and must do better, and fulfill the goals of the Comprehensive Plan to preserve farmland and open space for all of its citizens.
    Big energy is big energy, whether they are exploiting fossil fuels or renewables. Unless we regulate and hold them to carefully crafted plans, they will only do what is profitable not what is best for the community.

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