Warwick Officials Hear from Community About Solar
October 10, 2021
WARWICK, R.I. — It was standing room only in the Police Department’s community room as city officials held a solar ordinance workshop. Mayor Frank Picozzi and planning director Tom Kravitz presented their revisions to a controversial solar ordinance and invited the public to comment and suggest additional changes.
The proposed ordinance would prohibit solar development in residential neighborhoods, limiting them to industrial zoned areas. It also includes provisions for noise pollution, as many residents have said solar arrays are much noisier to abutters than people realize. While residents welcomed many of the changes, attendees were still not satisfied.
“Give folks time to see what you come up with next,” resident Barabra Walsh said during the Oct. 6 community meeting. “And maybe it needs one more revision after that, so what.”
City officials began drafting a solar ordinance last year, assembling a set of standards for future projects. A previous version of the ordinance was much more permissive to solar array placement. When Picozzi was sworn in as mayor, he halted the ordinance because of public concern.
Picozzi said he is not a fan of solar sprawl, but defended the rights of developers and property owners to apply for variances before the Zoning Board of Review.
“Everyone has that right, and should it be approved I don’t wanna see the nightmare on West Shore Road anywhere else,” he said.
Warwick has three existing solar projects: one on East Avenue; one off Jefferson Boulevard on Kilvert street; and one along West Shore Road. The ground-mounted arrays were zoned as electrical plants after project developers applied for variances. But residents complained of noise pollution, and called them eyesores that hurt property values.
Residents are currently concerned about four possible new solar developments. ISM Solar, a renewable energy development company based out of East Providence, has secured leases from the Kent County YMCA on Centerville Road and the Little Rhody Beagle Club off Cowesett Road for ground-mounted solar projects. Both leases have been filed with the city, and a freshwater wetlands permit has been approved by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management.
“The Y didn’t get approved; no one has submitted anything to the city,” Picozzi said.
Neighbors of the Valley Country Club on New London Avenue were well represented at the recent workshop. Many carried yellow signs protesting a solar development on country club property.
Residents expressed concern about a solar development proposed for Scott Elementary School, also on Centerville Road.
Residents also gave input on the new solar ordinance. Some expressed the need to add specific policy goals. Bob Oberg, reading off a pre-written statement, said language should be added “to protect Warwick natural resources, including open space, farmland, forest and other natural habitats … the city encourages development of solar energy on commercial, industrial and other developed land and locations.”
Others expressed concern about ensuring a carveout alternative space on homes for rooftop solar panels. Residents said installing solar panels on a home’s roof can violate the warranty, since solar installation requires cutting holes in the roof itself. The current version of the city ordinance prohibits solar panels on the ground of a residential property.
Not everyone agreed that the entire old bill was bad.
“It’s two steps forward with [tossing out] the overlay and new prohibitions, but a step backwards in terms of project-level site requirements,” said Jane Austin, who has urged the city to adopt an ordinance that directs solar development to its developed, commercial, and industrial areas.
Austin noted while the newer draft of the ordinance is shorter, clearer, and more succinct, any bill on solar standards should be both clear and as comprehensive as possible. She said she wanted to see more about setbacks, noise standards, screening, and buffering. She said maintenance requirements should be written into the ordinance.
Others agreed with an idea Kravitz made during his presentation about relegating solar projects to commercial solar canopies or industrial areas only.
“Solar is really good and it should be done responsibly, but not in neighborhoods,” one resident said.
Some looked for increased protections for the city’s remaining forests. Nathan Cornell, vice-chair of the School Committee, pledged not to support solar projects on forested areas.
Residents also questioned how closely city officials would adhere to the zoning prohibitions of solar, and sought assurances zoning officials would not rubber stamp any requests from developers.
“What you’re doing here will not affect the two developers that have approached you,” Walsh said. “It will affect us for the next 20 or 30 years to come.”
Local officials said each solar development project would be decided on a case-by-case basis. Even with a strict prohibition along zoning lines, in a small city like Warwick there are plenty of gray areas.
“The short answer is, it’ll be tested,” Kravtiz said.
The proposed ordinance is expected to be voted on by the City Council later this month, but officials have indicated an openness to holding off on the vote.
“There’s no reason to rush something we want to get right,” City Council member Vincent Gebhart said.
“You can’t go back once you do it; the land doesn’t come back,” replied a resident.