Richmond Council Limits Commercial Solar Sprawl
October 21, 2019
RICHMOND, R.I. — Another rural community is setting limits on renewable energy.
A week after the the Hopkinton Town Council banned wind turbines, the Richmond Town Council moved to curtail utility-scale solar sprawl.
With no opposition from the public or developers, the council voted unanimously Oct. 15 to adopt a ban on commercial solar development in residential neighborhoods, areas that are classified as R-3 zoning districts. The town already prohibits wind turbines.
The latest restriction on renewable energy in Rhode Island is part of a trend that many communities are following, especially towns with farmland and open space, as developers look for cheap land for industrial-scale wind and solar projects. Efforts to pass statewide siting rules have been sidelined by policy disputes in the General Assembly.
To help these communities, a study through the Office of Energy Resources would help create incentives for building renewable projects on brownfields and built environments such as parking lots and former quarries.
The Richmond ban doesn’t prohibit solar arrays on farmland and on commercial and industrial properties. The typically smaller, non-commercial rooftop and ground-mounted solar arrays that offset electricity used on the property are still allowed on residential land.
“These [commercial] solar arrays have a place, maybe in a parking lot, in a shopping plaza to cover cars, but not in someone’s backyard,” Town Council president Rich Nassaney wrote in an email to ecoRI News.
The decision happened relatively quickly after an ordinance was put forth by the Town Council in August. It was subsequently approved by the Zoning Board of Review in September and ratified by the council at its most recent meeting.
“The decision to not allow [commercial] solar in residential areas is quite simple,” Nassaney wrote, “the people that live in these neighborhoods have to look at these things, the energy produced does not benefit them or the town, and the land is then unusable for 25-plus years.”
The council’s decision prevents the Zoning Board of Review from granting exemptions to developers who want to build arrays in areas zones for residential development, something that was permitted in the town zoning rules.
Two commercial solar projects seeking special-use permits to build in residential zones can still go forward since the developers filed their applications before the new solar rule was passed.
The 4.5-megawatt Freepoint Solar LLC project at 36 Woodville Road has drawn criticism from neighbors. At the July 22 meeting of the Zoning Board of Review, abutters said the solar array will create traffic, cause visual disruption, and generally erode Richmond’s rural character.
Several residents wanted to know why developers are awarded special-use permits to build on residential property. Zoning board members said they had little choice, as the town ordinance allowed special permits as long as a project is within 2 miles of a utility substation. The Freepoint application is currently being held up over the question of whether an Amtrak facility located within the 2-mile radius of the proposed solar installation is considered a utility substation.
The 5.3-megawatt Richmond Beaver River I solar array proposed by Green Development LLC of North Kingstown is moving forward on farmland owned by Stamp Farms of Cranston.
Both projects have hearings scheduled for Oct. 28 before the Zoning Board of Review for special-use permits.
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Both Hopkinton and Richmond have beautiful rural landscapes. I give kudos to both Town Councils for having the gumption to stop solar and wind turbine sprawl from overtaking their bucolic woodlands.