Land Use

Massive Solar Project Carves Up North Smithfield’s Whortleberry Hill

Green Development has proposed building a 38.4-megawatt solar installation on 400-plus acres on Whortleberry Hill. Some 200 acres will need to be cleared. (Diprete Engineering)

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.”

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  1. Green Development may have this in the bag now—and recent political actions surrounding the NS Conservation Commission suggest that further such outrages may be in the offing in that town—but if similar projects in other towns proposed for sensitive environmental areas, as Whortleberry Hill demonstrably is—local authorities need to pay attention to critical planning resource that is the mentioned DEM Wildlife Action Plan and its essential Conservation Opportunity Areas map.

    As the Whortleberry Hill project, referencing the map, is north of Iron Mine road, the project area is indeed overplayed in the Conservation Opportunity Areas map as a "Natural Heritage Area," meaning that species that are "of Concern," "Threatened," or "Endangered" in Rhode Island are documented on the site. Un-noted, though, in the article, is that most of the site is also overplayed as an "Unfragmented Forest Block, 500-plus acres."

    Conservation Commissions everywhere—especially the new one appointed in North Smithfield under a cloud of political suspicion—plus Planning Boards and Planners, would be wise to educate themselves about the Wildlife Action Plan and its excellent planning tool, the COA map. DEM has an liaison person especially appointed for the purpose of educating communities about the WAP, and Grow Smart Rhode Island is a private planning advocacy organization that offers its expertise in using the WAP for local planning purposes.

  2. A further note:

    The article notes that DEM has "signed off" on the project. In reference to my previous comment, this raises the question "How could DEM "sign off" if the project threatens to kill and/or expel from the site species that are Endangered, Threatened, or of Concern that are categorically identified as being on the site per the "Natural Heritage Area" designation on the Conservation Opportunity Areas map of DEM’s 2015 Wildlife Action Plan?"

    The Energy Facility Siting Board hearings concerning the local environmental impact of the Invenergy power plant last year go a long way toward answering that question and providing a possible remedy.

    What the article actually means by DEM’s "signing off" on the project—as you’ll find by clicking the live link—is that the project’s wetlands permit is likely to be approved. The text notes that the presiding officer sees no likely impediments to such approval. …But the key point here is that is is "wetlands" approval. DEM has jurisdiction over wetlands, scientifically qualifying wetlands known legally as "Jurisdictional Wetlands."

    But the great conundrum in this case is that most of the Whortleberry Hill site overlaid by DEM’s Conservation Opportunity Areas map as "Unfragmented Forest 500-plus acres" and "Natural Heritage Area" falls into a legal nullity known as "Non-jurisdictional Uplands." A nullity because DEM, as the term makes clear, does NOT have jurisdiction over development questions in these non-wet uplands.

    This leads to a central absurdity of our State’s wildlife and habitat protection scheme, one that the public should do something about.

    Say, for example, you have the documented presence of the Wood Turtle in the existing Natural Heritage Area covering about half Whortleberry Hill solar project. Wood Turtles were documented in that forest by competent authority a few years ago and that led to the Natural Heritage Area designation on the COA map—the Wood Turtle being a Rhode Island species "of Concern," and since 2015 being under study by the US Fish & Wildlife Service for nationally Endangered Species status, decision pending in 2023.

    Wood Turtles spend the winter hibernating in stream beds, and our example turtle on Whortleberry Hill spends her hibernation in the "major stream" running into Cedar Swamp cited by Mr. Rapko. The stream and its boggy bottomland qualifies as a "wetland," thus protecting the hibernating turtle from land development as per the Jurisdictional Wetland permitting authority granted by law to DEM. And as we see on Green Development’s site map, all such wetland on the site is duly protected from construction and will be left in its natural condition.

    However, the when our Wood Turtle emerges from the stream in spring, it spends the rest of the warm months entirely on the land, ranging more than a thousand meters from its wetland hibernation site, all of it Non-jurisdictional Uplands. And she lays her eggs, always, in these Non-jurisdictional Uplands, too. That would be most of the land covered by the Natural Heritage Area overlay on Whorlteberry Hill found on the COA map: the land to be clear-cut, bulldozed, graded, fenced, and rendered entirely inhabitable to Wood Turtles and any other of the threatened interior forest species that theoretically could, or actually in fact do, dwell in that forest.

    But, Non-jurisdictional means just that: DEM and the State of RI behind it have no jurisdiction over these lands or their wildlife. There is no permit required for development in Non-jurisdictional Uplands that would compel DEM to examine each case and decide the question of unacceptable harm to a threatened species and their habitats. With but few obscure exceptions, such as power generation 40 megawatts and up, jurisdiction over development in these uplands is entirely the responsibility of the local authorities. Our towns, through their Comprehensive Plans and land-use ordinances, do have the power to decide all manner of development questions; and they would be foolish not to use such a substantial, legally powerful tool as that afforded by DEM’s Wildlife Action Plan and its COA map.

    Of course, we must move the State in that direction, too. RI DEM should be given permitting authority when it comes to the question of development versus threatened species. In Connecticut, as we learned during the Invenergy hearings, the CT "DEEP" has been given the power to permit or not permit the "taking" of threatened wildlife and their habitats in all land development projects in uplands. That’s what we don’t have but should have for DEM here in Rhode Island because it is too easy for developers to find local politicians who will sell out and permanently alter the environment for the worse. In that regard, in the interest of public information, ecori news might do well to interview the Town of Burrillville’s expert environmental witness in the Invenergy case on this topic. He is a consultant practicing in Connecticut, and under cross examination during the Invenergy hearings he explained the crucial differences between the two states in their approaches to protection of uplands.

  3. is this the same Green Development co that announced a massive suit against Coventry and Exeter that didn’t give them the desired go-ahead? If so, it seems the vulture capitalists are taking advantage of the subsidies and requirements for renewables and the naiveté of the climate movement that likes to proclaim renewable energy as "clean energy." Oh well, we get subsidized fireworks for the loss of woodlands!

  4. Smithfield, Hopkinton, Exeter, Coventry – all of the state’s last wild habitats are being systematically clear-cut in the name of fake "green" energy while acres of commercial roof tops sit vacant. Zoning no longer protects us, and DEM consistently approves wetland development for these companies, putting our drinking water at risk. Gov. Raimondo should be tarred and feathered for setting this devastation in motion. It is truly sickening!

    • Good point about acres of vacant commercial rooftops statewide. Why are they choosing to clear 200 wooded acres plus the ramifications ? Has the State studied rooftop solar development yet ?

  5. "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."

    This article is disingenuous from the first sentence. The idea of a concession stand (with bathrooms) tied to any revenue from this Green Development solar project was not formalized, but first floated in October 2019 (and was well into the approval and permitting process) – when former TC President John Beauregard discussed openly at a NS Town Council meeting that he had a conversation with Mark DePasquale of Green Development around GD constructing bathrooms/concession stand at the Dr. Paul F. Joyce Athletic Complex. And at that time, the value of the initial revenue payment was under $200,000 – considerably less than the value of the bathrooms/concessions. A big win for recreation and residents in town.

    Anyone who claims that the Town of NS "sold out the environment for a concession stand" is at a minimum misguided if not deceitful. The article’s author would have been well-served to do his research prior to publishing, rather than listening to a group of residents apparently hellbent on obscuring facts to fit their own narrative. I’ll let you make your own judgement on the veracity of any other commentary herein.

    Tony Guertin
    North Smithfield

  6. Kathy W, despite the failure of our state legislature last year to pass reasonable solar development regulations after a lengthy, meticulous, and politically inclusive effort by our mainstream environmental advocates such as the Audubon Society, Save the Bay, and the Environmental Council of Rhode Island, our local communities very much do have the legal authority to regulate solar and any other kind of land development within their boundaries.

    Ultimately acting through the ballot box, it is up to the voters of each community to ensure that their elected officials get that message. Every town has a volunteer Conservation Commission to advocate for the local environment, a volunteer planning board to draft land-use regulation, and a town council to vet and vote upon such measures. It can be done and it has been done as the aptly tagged "solar land rush" has attracted widespread notoriety—notoriety such as Green Development’s project in North Smithfield. (No doubt, the upcoming local election there will be a lively one.) For example, it has been done in Burrillville where the Wildlife Action Plan and its accompanying Conservation Opportunity Areas map have been incorporated into the Town’s recently revised Comprehensive Plan.

    Subordinate to that, a yawning hole brought to light in the North Smithfield case that towns should regulate to prevent is the comically inadequate wildlife survey done for the North Smithfield project by Green Development’s environmental consultants, Natural Resources Services Inc.

    You have a project site of over 400 acres, much of it a designated as a DEM "Wildlife Action Plan" Natural Heritage Area, and much of it designated by same as part of an Un-fragmented Forest Block of 500-plus acres—all that 400 acres of the Green Development lot and its various habitats and you have wildlife survey done that would appear to have been conducted in less than a single day. You can read it and re-read it and you just can’t tell for sure, but as written you are led to infer that this is the case. It might have been done on more days, but only in the wetlands; or what data it collected was collected incidental to NRS’s other activities such as marking wetlands—the public and the town officials just can’t tell. (Click the live-link "project site," scroll down. The brief paragraph discussing the survey ) No discussion is made of the methods used in the survey, and the brief text actually admits its inadequacy regarding time of day of the survey.

    So, as we read in the table of results provided, NRS Inc purports to catalog, on a site of over 400 acres, 15 species of bird, 7 of mammals, and 3 of amphibians—one of them dead. (No reptiles, apparently. Perhaps St. Patrick once visited and drove them out.)

    Next door in Burrillville, in 2017 during the Invenergy saga, the Energy Facilities Siting Board, confronted with a similarly pathetic survey done by that company’s environmental consultants, ordered that a genuinely professional one be done. And on the mere 200 acre surveyed there were found 81 species of birds, 21 of mammals, 8 of amphibians, and 3 of reptiles.

    What would be found in the Whortleberry Hill forest if such a survey were done?

    But in NRS’s and Green Development’s defense, they are under no such obligation.

    To DEM, most of the Whortleberry Hill site is Non-jurisdictional Uplands, a land category where the Department, by absence of law, has no authority to permit development. That could be changed by the State Legislature, though highly unlikely right now. The best prospect is for towns like North Smithfield to assume such authority in their land development regulations. They could require developers of large scale projects in recognized sensitive Upland environments to conduct wildlife surveys to ensure that no rare species are destroyed or displaced.

  7. I was struck by the following comment in the article: “We definitely need to transition to renewable energy. No one argues that point,” Roberts said. “But how we do it matters.”

    In fact, many Rhode Islanders do argue the point and oppose all renewable energy. In my town, Hopkinton, 3 of our Town Council members do not accept that there is a climate crisis. That is their right but it does have consequences. The leadership of an active opposition group opposing all solar and wind in Hopkinton refuses to acknowledge a climate crisis. This distorts the playing field. There is little incentive for developers to address the second part of Ms. Roberts statement "But how we do it matters" when the climate deniers oppose everything without considering if it is a good or a lousy project. Therefore, we mostly get lousy projects.

  8. Yes Harvey, the climate change deniers certainly muddy the water. And it means that very little climate science is used when determining the full impacts of any project (solar arrays, Walmarts) that removes large tracts of forest. Has anyone, for example, calculated the amount of carbon sequestration potential that will be lost in the Wortleberry Hill project?

    Mature forests (with the emphasis on mature) hold the greatest carbon sequestration potential than any other vegetative cover. In Rhode Island, there are NO mature forests. It’s all second growth, with many decades to go before even nearing maturity, and as these forests grow the amount of carbon sequestered continues to grow. If the goal is to reduce the state’s overall carbon footprint there needs to be a coordinated strategy to address projects that take one step forward (reduce fossil fuel use) and two steps backward (cutting down good carbon sequestering forest).

    Proforestation. It is a word you will be hearing more about. Google it. It’s what serious climate scientists are promoting to realize the full potential of mature (maturing) forests in sequestering carbon. It’s a simple idea. Let forests grow. And it is not just preventing the destruction of forest on private land for ill-conceived solar arrays or shopping malls. It means a new strategy for State management areas and other protected forests where the goal is to achieve the full potential of forests to provide the ecosystem services we desperately need in this time of climate crisis. It means stopping the indiscriminate cutting of forests under the guise of providing more habitat for hunted species, a strategy based on commodity over community, a strategy that says it’s OK for us to cut forests because we’re doing it to provide a "resource". As long as this strategy persists, any attempts by the state to limit forest removal for other purposes will be viewed as hypocritical.

    In this time of climate crisis everyone is being asked to make sacrifices. State government can not suggest making any sacrifices unless they are willing to make them as well. The loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services at Wortleberry Hill will be staggering, no amount of cookie cutter pollinator patches will make up for it. The State will remain oblivious to these losses because they have no authority over nonjurisdictional uplands, and there will certainly be no attempts made by the State to rectify this situation. No attempts that is by this administration which, to be succinct, is just not giving the climate crisis the serious attention it demands.

  9. Rather than clear-cut valuable Trees, why can’t the solar energy company work with the huge Empty spaces created by the closing of so many businesses with huge empty parking lots all over RI?

  10. What is with all the mad dash for solar power anyway, I thought there was no need for power in the state of rhode island, i.e. the recent denial of the power plant within the town of burrillville where it was alledgedly determined that there was no need for power anywhere in his state.

  11. I counter, “We definitely need to transition to renewable energy. No one argues that point…But how we do it matters” with the Bill Mckibben quote "winning slowly on climate change is the same thing as loosing". The pace of deployment of renewable energy needs to double if we are to hit the insufficient goals set in Paris. The coming climate crisis should exempt all renewable energy development from the NIMBY tyranny of the local planning board

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