Opinion

Johnston ‘Lacks Regulation’ for Proposed Solar Projects

Forests that are removed to make room for ground-mounted solar installations are effective at naturally reducing levels of atmospheric CO2 through carbon sequestration. (istock)

Our town of Johnston is becoming more and more developed. With the construction of the new Amazon warehouse and the steady progression of small housing developments, the town is losing its rural nature and its natural forested areas.

Recently, Green Development, a Cranston-based developer of solar and wind power sites, has proposed five large solar fields in western Johnston. Two of the proposed areas are east of Greenville Avenue near the Smithfield town line. The other three are south of Winsor Avenue, east of Hopkins Avenue, and nearly surrounding the Rollingwood development.

The town lacks effective regulation for these types of projects. Companies like Green Development know they can propose projects and get them built without any large roadblocks from the town. There are no published restrictions on where commercial solar developments can go and how they are laid down and constructed, so our large undeveloped residential areas (zoned R-20 and R-40) provide the space needed for large solar projects. These projects require special-use permits, but the standard for the Zoning Board of Review to issue those permits is not very high.

A recent study by the University of Rhode Island that analyzed 400,000 property transactions concluded that houses within 0.1 miles (528 feet) of commercial solar developments see an average reduction in property value of 7%, and houses within a mile can see an average reduction of 1.7%. There are nearly 100 abutters adjacent to the Johnston solar field lots, so the town could see a broad depreciation of housing values as a direct result of these projects. Johnston owes it to us residents to protect our investments. Special-use permit ordinances require “that granting of the special use permit will be environmentally compatible with neighboring properties and the protection of property values.” These projects do not meet this requirement.

One of the functions of the town’s Planning Board is to prepare and adopt the Comprehensive Development Plan, which is a lengthy document establishing standards and expectations for land use and development. When projects are proposed to the board, the board makes a ruling as to the project’s alignment with the plan. Johnston’s comprehensive plan was last published in January 2007. Solar development is not addressed in the plan — there is no guidance for or against such projects — but the board concluded that the solar project is in alignment with the plan.

One of the key themes in the plan is the importance of maintaining the town’s rural nature and natural areas for the enjoyment of the residents. These projects would clear more than 150 acres of largely wooded land, with installation of the panels inside chain-link fences. The Planning Board determined that these projects are in compliance with the comprehensive plan, but they are not. In fact, the 2007 comprehensive plan identifies the area south of Winsor Avenue as land that the town should purchase to preclude development. The town never made this purchase, which is why the land is still available for development. The planning board assures the town that a new comprehensive plan is in development. These projects should not be permitted to proceed until the new plan is approved and they can be confirmed to be in compliance or not.

The town owes its boards, and its residents, clear regulations for major development projects. It is not fair to the residents that because of an outdated comprehensive plan and lax land-use regulations, their property values and quality of life may suffer. Johnston is a special town in rapidly developing Rhode Island. These solar projects do not need to be built in residential areas. Put them elsewhere, on rooftops or in areas zoned for commercial and industrial uses.

For Johnston residents interesting in ensuring their voices are heard on this matter should attend the Johnston Zoning Board of Review meeting Thursday, March 31, at 6:30 p.m. at the Johnston Senior Center, 1291 Hartford Ave. For the agenda, click here.

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  1. If the writer is accurate, that the Town of Johnston’s Comprehensive Plan was last revised in 2007, the Town is way out of compliance with the RI Comprehensive Planning and Land Use Regulation Act. That Act became law in the late ’80’s. It requires revision of Comp Plans every ten years. Johnston would be five years out of compliance. If the Planning Board’s response to the writer, that the “planning board assures the town that a new comprehensive plan is in development,” then a Comprehensive Plan committee, composed of planning officials and members of the public, acting independently under its own chosen leadership, is now in session and holds regular, published, and open to the public meetings. The following is a part of the explanation of the Comp Plan process available on the website of the RI Department of Administration, Division of Statewide Planning:

    Some of the key features of the Act include:

    all municipalities are to prepare and adopt a single comprehensive plan that are to be updated and re-adopted not less than every ten years;
    each plan is to include certain standard content, and that forecasts, goals, and policies must be formulated looking at a minimum 20-year planning horizon;
    public input and comment is required during the comprehensive planning process;
    comprehensive plans are to serve as the foundation for municipal zoning;
    plans are to be reviewed by the State to assure they are consistent with the provisions of the Act; and
    State agencies are to conform their programs and projects to municipal plans that have State approval.

    “Some of the key features of the Act include:

    —all municipalities are to prepare and adopt a single comprehensive plan that are to be updated and re-adopted not less than every ten years;
    —each plan is to include certain standard content, and that forecasts, goals, and policies must be formulated looking at a minimum 20-year planning horizon;
    —public input and comment is required during the comprehensive planning process;
    —comprehensive plans are to serve as the foundation for municipal zoning;
    —plans are to be reviewed by the State to assure they are consistent with the provisions of the Act;
    —and State agencies are to conform their programs and projects to municipal plans that have State approval.”

  2. The Johnston Planning Board might want to contact the Westport (MA) Planning Board. The solar industry swooped in here several years ago before Westport had any idea how to deal with them. As a result, we’ve lost many many acres of forests (150? 200?) to solar companies who lease the land from farmers and then clearcut to install large-scale arrays. Two years ago, Westport set the number of acres that could be “disturbed” to 16; now they are coming back at it to lower to 12. (It should be lowered further.) They’ve also enacted other measures. Westport Planning Board: 508-636-1029, Jim Whitin, Chairman

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