Exeter Solar Ordinance Case Headed to Trial
January 20, 2020
Rhode Island Superior Court Judge Jeffrey A. Lanphear recently made a decision that favors renewable energy developer Green Development LLC and its plan to build multiple utility-scale solar facilities in Exeter.
The North Kingstown company, a resident, and the town are in a fight over a zoning amendment that allows solar arrays on property that Green Development seeks to develop.
On July 16, 2018 the Town Council approved a zoning amendment, 3-2, that gave Green Development permission to build solar projects on 15 lots without approval by the planning and zoning boards. Soon after, Green Development submitted four applications to develop 65 megawatts of solar arrays on the rezoned land.
After two Town Council members who approved the original zoning amendment were voted out of office, the council replaced the amendment with one that said solar projects are no longer allowed by right and therefore require town approval. The new council argued that the solar arrays were inconsistent with the town’s comprehensive plan.
In concurrent lawsuits, an Exeter resident and the town sought a judge’s decision to determine if the original amendment is, in fact, inconsistent with the comprehensive plan.
In his Jan. 8 ruling, Lanphear said the comprehensive plan wasn’t specific enough to warrant a reversal of the zoning amendment that allowed the solar projects to advance.
“To invalidate such an amendment,” Lanphear wrote, “the moving party must demonstrate that the amendment is contrary to the public interest or does not comply with a specific part of the comprehensive plan.”
The decision cannot be appealed and means the case will head to trial.
Bill Fischer, spokesperson for Green Development, noted the trend by rural towns such as Exeter to fight utility-scale solar installations. He said despite the jobs and climate benefits of solar energy, “local leaders throughout Rhode Island have decided to embrace nimbyism and lawsuits. At some point the taxpayers in these towns will realize it might be time for new leadership.”
Are the three Green Development LLC ground-mounted solar facilities to be located on clear-cut land? Have the trees already been cut from the sites? I’m interested in the tension between preservation of green space and the need for solar facilities. Thank you.
It is important to note that Judge Lanphear’s ruling in Exeter was in response to a motion for summary judgment by the plaintiffs. Such motions have a high bar to get over in order to be successful and the law requires judges to deny such motions if there is even the smallest likelihood that the non-moving party (in this case Green appearing as an intervenor) could succeed on the merits at trial. Such a ruling in no way means that Green will be successful in the long run, it simply means that the parties will have to proceed to trial.