Judge Reasons Green Development Caused Exeter Turmoil to Get Its Projects Approved
Another lawsuit filed by North Kingstown developer is tossed out
May 15, 2020
Green Development LLC, one of Rhode Island’s largest renewable energy developers, was dealt another legal setback in its efforts to build ground-mounted solar arrays in Exeter.
In April, Superior Court Associate Justice Jeffrey Lanphear denied a Green Development lawsuit that challenged Exeter’s decision to reject a 7-acre solar installation at 84 Exeter Road.
This time, Lanphear found that the town was right to disallow three other solar projects, at Ten Rod Road, Tripps Corner Road, and 99 Ten Rod Road. Lanphear noted that plans were submitted, but not certified, before a moratorium was enacted and therefore don’t have vested rights to go forward.
North Kingstown-based Green Development argued that the applications were submitted before the town changed its zoning regulations. But Lanphear ruled that the paperwork wasn’t certified as complete and therefore the town wasn’t obliged to honor them as fully submitted.
Lanphear reasoned that Green Development withheld the applications as it created turmoil within the town over solar development. Town planner Ashley Hahn-Sweet and the Planning Board said the Green Development projects were in violation of the town’s comprehensive plan and zoning ordinances.
Meanwhile, the Town Council was working against the planning department to rewrite the rules in favor of the projects. Lanphear surmised that Green Development likely helped write the so-called “Green Ordinance” passed by the council in July 2018.
“Zoning Ordinances remained fluid, due in part to Green Development’s attempt to alter them,” Lanphear wrote. “Nevertheless, Green Development knowingly charged ahead and fought a war of attrition against the ever-mounting opposition.”
Lanphear referred to community opposition to utility-scale solar projects that led to two incumbents who supported the Green Ordinance to lose re-election in November 2018. The new council members rescinded the ordinance that would have allowed solar projects to be built on Green Development properties without review by the planning and zoning boards.
The case highlights the struggles rural towns have with professionally staffed, well-funded developers who can find loopholes to build utility-scale projects.
Lanphear noted that Exeter has minimal government services with no police department, volunteer fire companies, and limited administrative staff. Hahn-Sweet is a part-time planner who at the time was processing applications for a dozen solar facilities. Lanphear wrote that it wasn’t fair to penalize the planning department for not processing an application within the state-mandated 25-day limit, especially as Green Development paused its applications while it waited for the Town Council to approve a zoning change that favored its projects.
“Here, Green Development voluntarily froze the clock — it cannot now take issue with Ms. Sweet’s failure to label its applications as complete,” Lanphear wrote.
The court battles aren’t over. Green Development is suing Exeter for $200 million — the estimated revenue lost from the solar projects. The developer is also suing Exeter for helping North Smithfield establish solar-siting rules that it claims prevented projects. Green Development also is suing Coventry for $85 million for denying and stymying solar projects.
Exeter Town Council president Calvin Ellis hopes that the recent court victories bode well for the pending lawsuits.
“I’m very pleased and that people have been vindicated, especially our planner Ashley Hahn-Sweet,” Ellis said.
He added that he supports renewable energy that is done with a lot of forethought and public input.
“Proper prior planning prevents poor outcomes,” Ellis said.
Bill Fischer, spokesman for Green Development, said the company will continue to advocate in court that the applications were completed in time and that the Town Council’s rewriting of the Green Ordinance was a breach of state law.
“We will continue to take all appropriate steps to protect our vested rights,” Fischer said.
Join the DiscussionView Comments
Your support keeps our reporters on the environmental beat.
Reader support is at the core of our nonprofit news model. Together, we can keep the environment in the headlines.