Second Homes, Solar Arrays, Vineyard Concerts Test Little Compton’s Rural Character
April 9, 2020
LITTLE COMPTON, R.I. — This rural coastal town in Newport County has been running an experiment in land conservation since the mid-1980s, according to longtime resident Larry Anderson, who has witnessed it all and been in the middle of some of it.
In 1986, recognizing the need to protect the town’s agricultural identity, scenic beauty, water quality, and wildlife habitat, the town’s voters established the Little Compton Agricultural Conservancy Trust.
Now, more than three decades later, the definition of “agriculture use” has vastly shifted, here and across the state. The siting of large ground-mounted solar arrays on private and/or conserved property, such as farmland, is the current issue forcing the town to consider how Little Compton’s agricultural landscape should look like as the 21st century enters its third decade.
While rural communities in western Rhode Island have been dealing with utility-scale solar siting on open space for the past three years, the issue came into focus here last year. In July, the Town Council passed a Solar Energy Systems Ordinance, to “regulate the installation of solar energy systems and promote the safe, effective, and efficient use of solar energy systems that are compatible with the neighboring properties and rural character in which they are located.”
Anderson, who was elected to the Town Council in November 2018, voted in favor of the ordinance. But he said much more work is still required, as some farmers are pushing back on some of the ordinance’s language dealing with ground-mounted solar projects and conservation easements.
“We have a solar ordinance but the issue isn’t really settled yet,” he said. “Things are changing.”
Things began to change in earnest in 2015, three years after Carolyn Rafaelian, founder of Alex and Ani, bought the 162-acre Sakonnet Vineyard and changed its name to Carolyn’s Sakonnet Vineyard. That summer the West Main Road venue hosted 29 weddings and 28 concerts, including 13 Thursday-night concerts and a Sunday jazz series.
Neighbors and concerned residents — Anderson being one of them — spoke up against what they said was the winery’s transformation into more of an entertainment venue than an agricultural operation. They claimed some of the concerts drew nearly 2,000 attendees — about half the year-round population of Little Compton.
The group was concerned that past and proposed entertainment activities at the vineyard violated the property’s deed to development rights regarding the protection and preservation of agricultural lands. In 2008, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Rhode Island Agricultural Land Preservation Commission, and the Little Compton Agricultural Conservancy Trust bought the development rights to 94 acres of vineyard land for $2.25 million.
Since its creation 34 years ago, the Little Compton Agricultural Conservancy Trust and its partners have protected 2,050 acres of farmland and open space. The seed money for the purchase and protection of land comes from a property transfer tax, paid by the buyer in each local land transaction. This money becomes the basis on which grants from state, federal, and private sources are leveraged.
A few of the vineyard’s neighbors eventually hired a lawyer, and a shaky settlement was reached last May.
Land-use tensions, however, continue to ripple through Little Compton and across the state. As the global market shifted food production away from local farms to corporate behemoths, small- and medium-scale farmers in Rhode Island began to feel the financial squeeze. Looking to maximize their land to make a living, accessory uses became a popular option for farmers. It’s a growing trend nationwide, from hosting weddings and solar panels to brewing beer.
To help address these evolving forms and perceptions of agriculture, the General Assembly, in 2014, amended Rhode Island’s Right to Farm Act to include such mixed uses as tours, petting zoos, hayrides, and other “special events.” There is no specific mention of weddings.
Little Compton, like other rural parts of Rhode Island, has seen agricultural tourism — a commercial enterprise at a working farm, such as corn mazes, farm-to-table dinners, and barn dances — explode into a fiercely debated topic that often pits private/corporate interests against community interests.
Many farmers and landowners ultimately decide it’s less hassle just to sell their land to a developer, something that has been happening in Rhode Island for the past few generations. Since the 1940s, the state has lost more than 80 percent of its farmland to development, according to the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management.
During a Feb. 12 drive around Little Compton, Anderson told ecoRI News that in the past decade or so former farmland and open space has been developed into second homes and large estates. There are no easy answers, he said.
However, well-crafted ordinances — developed with plenty of community input —rather than cumbersome and vague ones, which can divide communities and create red tape, do provide solutions. Anderson said he is hoping the town’s solar ordinance will eventually provide that kind of foundation.
During our drive around town in Anderson’s 2009 dark-green Toyota Tacoma with 86,000 miles, the 35-year Little Compton resident, who has served on the Little Compton Budget Committee and the Little Compton Charter Review Commission and was the town moderator from 2006-2014, spoke about the importance of striking a balance between individual and public rights, control, and governance of the town’s nearly 13,400 acres.
The former president of the Sakonnet Preservation Association noted that before the Little Compton Agricultural Conservancy Trust was created only 1 percent of the town’s land was protected. Today, 26 percent is conserved, typically under some type of hybrid ownership.
While this substantial increase in land conservation has protected the town’s agricultural identity, scenic vistas, water quality, and wildlife habitat, as intended, Anderson noted it has also strained friendships and the tax base, fractured the community, and left the town grappling with how and where to site utility-scale solar and what types of agricultural tourism to permit.
“What do we mean by agriculture going forward is going to be a huge challenge,” he said. “Solar as a commercial use — what do we do? Do we just allow small arrays for farm use or do we also allow larger scale for energy production?”