Massive Solar Project Carves Up North Smithfield’s Whortleberry Hill
January 30, 2020
NORTH SMITHFIELD, R.I. — The consensus, at least of the seven residents sitting at the long rectangular table, is that the town sold out the environment for a concession stand.
In 2018, the Town Council, by a 4-to-1 vote, greenlighted the development of one of the largest ground-mounted solar installations in the state. The arrangement for the developer to build a bathroom and concession stand at the town’s athletic complex was formalized at a council meeting last October.
To help make the project happen, the council, led by then-president John Beauregard, a vocal supporter of the solar-energy proposal who would lose his re-election bid in November 2018, first created a special zoning district that allowed Green Development LLC to bypass the Zoning Board of Review by nullifying the need for a special-use permit. The decision drew criticism from neighbors and environmental advocates.
Weeks Street resident Cynthia Roberts sent a letter, dated May 7, 2018, to the Town Council expressing her “serious concerns over the proposed overlay ordinance.” She wrote that the process was long hidden from the public and that it benefits a few special interests.
“The overlay district was imposed on the community,” she said. “The only ones who supported it are the ones who are going to benefit from it. … A poor and untransparent process has led to this point.”
A PowerPoint presentation given by North Kingstown-based Green Development at an April 2018 Town Council meeting encouraged the creation of the solar overlay district. Company representatives said the town would reap $40 million in local economic benefit over 25 years from the company’s “temporary use of only 1% of North Smithfield’s land.”
The community benefits of creating this special district, according to the presentation, included $402,000 in annual tax payments for a total of $10 million over 25 years; a one-time upfront donation of $287,500 to be used at the town’s discretion; no added strain on fire, police, or the school system; and open space would be preserved because solar is a placeholder.
Green Development and the council eventually agreed that the bathroom and concession stand would replace the proposed one-time payment. Payments totaling about $5.6 million over 20 years is the most recent figure tied to the project.
The controversial renewable-energy developer has proposed building a 38.4-megawatt solar facility on 417 aces of private land off Iron Mine Hill Road. If built, the solar installation would be split into nine entities — each would generate less than 7 megawatts of electricity and be interconnected separately — to avoid size limitations in Rhode Island’s Renewable Energy Growth Program.
ecoRI News recently meet with the seven opponents, including Roberts, in the community room at Marshfield Commons on Metcalf Marsh Drive. They and other project opponents, first and foremost, object to the clear-cutting of some 200 acres of forestland on Whortleberry Hill between Greenville Road and Route 146.
Opponents have noted that the Whortleberry Hill ecosystem is on the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management’s 2015 Wildlife Action Plan’s “conservation opportunity areas” map and is designated a regional “wildlife corridor” critical to animal migration and a “natural heritage area” that is home to state-listed species that are endangered or threatened.
Mike Rapko noted that the site that is being clear-cut empties into the Blackstone River. He said a major stream runs through Cedar Swamp to the Branch River which feeds the Blackstone River.
Opponents have also noted other concerns about the project, such as increased runoff and more flooding caused by the clear-cutting of forest, possible blasting during construction, and the installation’s potential impact on water quality, as many of the homes in the area have private wells and Woonsocket reservoirs are to the south.
They also have questions that they claim have yet to be adequately answered. Will erosion controls be put in place? Will toxic pesticides and herbicides be applied to the grass surrounding the arrays? How will the project be taxed?
They have requested a third-party engineer be hired — paid for by Green Development but working for the town — to oversee the entire process, rather than relying on Green Development’s hired engineer to keep the town informed.
Greenville Road resident Bethany Levin said the town should be allowed to vote on the project.
The Planning Board has shared many of the same concerns. Last year it requested an emergency moratorium on commercial solar projects, saying the town’s ordinance needed to be updated to keep up with the size and number of projects being proposed. The council approved a two-month moratorium and passed requirements for decommissioning solar arrays.
Green Development, which has also proposed erecting a 462-foot-high wind turbine on Old Smithfield Road, has told the town it’s willing to pay $7,000 per megawatt annually for the 38.4-megawatt project — $2,000 more per megawatt than state law requires. The company has made similar offers to municipal officials in Coventry and Exeter.
Mark DePasquale, Green Development’s founder, has noted that his company has donated to the town’s annual fireworks display, which debuted in July 2018, not long after the Whortleberry Hill solar project was first introduced.
An oak forest and a mixed oak/white pine forest occupy the hills and stony slopes of the project site. Wetland habitat covers nearly 18 percent of the site.
The Department of Environmental Management has signed off on Green Development’s utility-scale solar project.
The Planing Board is expected to address the project at its Feb. 6 meeting. The five-member board can do little to keep the project from moving forward, but it can place restrictions on its development.
“We definitely need to transition to renewable energy. No one argues that point,” Roberts said. “But how we do it matters.”