Schartner Farms’ Massive Tomato Greenhouse Makes Sense for Exeter
July 7, 2021
Recent comments by Megan Cotter and Olivia DeFrancesco and opinion by Frank DiGregorio on the Schartner Farms’ proposal to build a 1-million-square-foot closed facility, powered by solar energy, in Exeter, R.I., to grow tomatoes deserve a reply.
Controlled environment agriculture (CEA), an automated, hydroponic system for cultivating crops in a closed setting, has less water use, less pesticide use, less fertilizer and less land use for the amount of crop grown compared to tilling the soil. What does it use more of? Capital and energy. Based on the energy use, this would be a nonstarter at our local electric rates, which therefore requires on-site generation to be viable. This explains the solar panels.
Is it a utility-scale solar system? According to the town definition based on square feet, yes, but according to the proposal, all the electricity produced would be consumed on-site. This is a big difference from the Revity project, which calls for 50 percent solar panel coverage on a parcel in a residential zone, and since there is no load on the property, 100 percent of that electricity is exported to the grid.
If you really want to preserve things like natural resources for future generations, you don’t use them. Traditional agriculture can wear land out, and uses a lot of water, fertilizer and pesticides. The 1930s Dust Bowl in the Midwest was man-made, not a natural occurrence. If we want to preserve water and farming resources for future generations, CEA looks like a good solution. The greenhouse is big, but it’s got a dirt floor. If it doesn’t work out, it wouldn’t be hard to remove it and revert to traditional farming — nowhere near the cost or effort of removing a shopping mall.
Regarding concerns that the project doesn’t fit with the the town’s comprehensive plan, this document was last updated in March 2004. Although CEA, like photovoltaics, was around when it was written, it was not included in the plan. State law requires comprehensive plan updates every 10 years, so our comp plan is also legally obsolete. It’s supposed to be a forward-looking document, not a historical artifact.
What should really happen here is that the comprehensive plan gets updated first, and then we can have intelligent discussions about whether solar and CEA projects fit, instead of guessing. As far as consideration for small farmers go, I believe the proposal as last discussed has no minimum size restrictions, so it could benefit farms large and small.
Regarding the solar-system-before-greenhouse question, that’s not “backward” — that’s best practice in construction. Whether it’s a house, building or some building complex, you want to do the infrastructure work like footings, water and power first, because you can use those improvements to complete the work, making the rest of the job easier, faster, less disturbing and less disruptive. You also try and do the work that’s furthest away from your entrance first, because it minimizes the chances passing vehicles and equipment will damage what you’ve already finished.
From the plans I see on the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management website, the panels are further away from the entrance than the greenhouse, so this approach makes sense.
As for impact on the tax base, this is a situation where it will pay to be careful what you wish for. Will it result in a dramatic expansion of the tax base for the town? Probably not. But it will expand some, because business inventory is taxed in Exeter. It will also result in more state tax revenue — provided the business is generating income.
On the subject of real-estate taxes, I expect most of the Schartner property is properly taxed as farmland. But consider where things are going. It takes farm revenue to pay those farmland taxes, and it’s been years since the Schartner farm stand has seen customers. Unless something changes, sooner or later the money runs out, and then the land will revert to vacant — which has an even lower rate, lowering the town tax base — or it will get sold in line with the “highest and best use” taxing principle, which these days means high-density affordable housing.
Just last month the Planning Board approved a 40-unit project for a property a little further south on Route 2. Given the Schartner acreage, the ultimate count would more likely be in the hundreds of units.
Cotter says the project does not need to be on prime farmland and could be established in an industrial zone elsewhere thanks to its enclosed CEA architecture. Yes, that’s true — and so could the Revity project — but consider this land has been farmed by the Schartners for at least four generations. It’s good business sense to make the most of the assets you have. It’s understandable why they would prefer to do this on the land they already own, rather than pick up stakes and move elsewhere. In addition, because land is so expensive, purchase of “industrial” land elsewhere would involve the sale of this land, and conversion by any buyer to what Exeter considers that “highest and best use” — residential housing.
“Rural” is based on population density. If Cotter really wants to preserve and promote Exeter’s rural atmosphere, she should be supporting this project, rather than criticizing it.
Regarding DiGregorio’s opinion, the Schartners do pay property taxes. A quick look at the assessor’s database shows the lot in question carries an assessed value of $970,000. It looks like it’s enrolled in the state Farm, Forest and Open Space program. If Frank doesn’t think they pay enough in taxes, the right place to take that up is with the state, not the town.
Economics 101 says that “if you want more of something, subsidize it, if you want less of something, tax it.” Frank’s talking out of both sides of his mouth when he says he supports farms but wants higher taxes on them. If you want higher taxes on them, what you’re really saying is that you want less farms, not more. If you want less farms, you’ll wind up with more residential housing, which is exactly what has happened on the North Kingstown side of Route 2, right across the street from Schartners.
Controlled environment agriculture has been around for decades, same for solar systems. If the comprehensive plan had been updated properly, as required by state law, it would already anticipate the potential uses of CEA and solar.
As for DiGregorio’s opinion on fire safety, he’s wrong on this, too. A temporary structure is something that’s not permanently attached to the ground. If it can be unbolted and moved, it’s not a permanent structure. Sure it’s big, but it’s still a greenhouse. Thermodynamics may not be a study topic for architects, but it is for engineers, and as far as safety is concerned, I would expect this structure would be safer than most, at least when it comes to fires. Glass, metal, concrete and water don’t burn. Growing plants aren’t flammable unless they’re exposed to high heat for extended periods, long enough to dry out. Dried husks might be flammable, but I don’t expect they’ll be kept inside because they’ll take up too much space, and outside I expect they’ll be part of a composting program. This structure is going to be far safer than the typical residential home.
As for displacing fertile agricultural soils, that isn’t Frank’s decision. That decision belongs to the Schartners.
Asa Davis has been a resident of Exeter, R.I., since 1973. He owns 100-plus acres in town and has proposed building a 30-acre ground-mounted solar facility.