Opinion

Johnston Must Update Guidance for Solar Development

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Johnston does not have guidance for solar projects in its comprehensive land development plan or in its zoning ordinances (ecoRI News)

Local governments owe their residents laws, ordinances, and other policies that ensure land development projects are executed in the best interests of the people. A town’s sovereign responsibility is to provide for its residents. This responsibility requires government to balance population growth, economic development, open space, quality of life, and other factors. The recent — and still ongoing — issue with proposed utility-scale solar developments in Johnston have highlighted gaps in Johnston’s zoning and land-use regulations that require improvements.

Johnston does not have guidance for solar projects in its comprehensive land development plan or in its zoning ordinances. Because of this lack of regulation, the town’s boards are put in difficult positions when asked to adjudicate the veracity of proposed projects. It is clear that utility-scale solar projects are not legally permitted under the town’s regulations. However, they are not explicitly prohibited. Rather, there is no ordinance that allows them to be built. But solar projects should be permitted, with appropriate siting and associated controls.

Johnston’s comprehensive land development plan was updated most recently in 2007 and approved in 2009. By Rhode Island state law, it expired in 2014. However, in the absence of a replacement, it remains effective. There is no mention of solar development projects in the 546 pages in this document. Because solar projects were not as ubiquitous 15 years ago as they are now, this lack of guidance is not surprising.

The Rhode Island Division of Statewide Planning lists the approval status of all Rhode Island comprehensive plans. Of the 39 communities, 26 have fully approved plans, 11 have expired plans, and two have plans that were denied approval by the state. In one example of poor maintenance, West Greenwich’s plan was approved by the town in 1995 and denied by the state; their new plan is in development now. West Greenwich has enacted solar ordinances. Portsmouth’s comprehensive plan expired in 2007 and the new plan is now in review by the state. Johnston has not even published draft sections of a new plan.

State guidance for comprehensive plan development now recommends incorporation of solar-siting guidance. Consequently, the communities which have updated their plans in the past five to seven years explicitly address solar developments.

It is instructive to assess how our neighboring communities handle solar projects, so Johnston can adapt useful practices.

In Burrillville, solar projects are allowed in general commercial zones via special-use permit. The Burrillville comprehensive plan commits to not put solar in forested land; little to no tree removal is preferred. Similarly, Cumberland states that it is inappropriate for land to be cleared of vegetation for solar projects. Cumberland’s ordinances do not allow commercial solar, but the comprehensive plan states that they should be allowed where appropriate in scale and sensitive to the surrounding context. Smithfield discourages deforestation for solar projects.

Glocester allows for solar to be installed in most zones, but details specific requirements based on the size and type of installation. These ordinances are specific and clearly consider many factors, including the character of the town and residents’ concerns.

Glocester’s solar ordinance defines “utility-scale” solar developments, the largest categorization, as between 4.6 and 20 acres. Land coverage greater than 20 acres is prohibited. For comparison, the proposed Winsor II site in Johnston is 31 acres and the Winsor III site is 76.5 acres. Both would be prohibited in Glocester. The total area of all five proposed Johnston projects is 133.15 acres within the fenced boundaries. The solar panels would occupy less area, but even more area would be cleared beyond the fence.

As I have shown in this brief overview, neighboring Rhode Island communities offer a variety of approaches to the solar issue. Johnston would be wise to analyze and compare the approaches taken, particularly in Glocester, to inform the new comprehensive plan and associated ordinances.

Johnston should permit new solar projects. However, these facilities should be discouraged in residentially zoned areas and strict limitations on deforestation must be established.

At the very minimum, Johnston must establish regulations which state if these types of facilities are permitted and where. We the residents deserve at least that much from our elected representatives and appointed officials.

Further, the comprehensive plan revision process requires input from the community — working groups, hearings, draft text, comment periods, and so forth. Residents have demonstrated recently that they have significant interest in how town land is used. The Johnston Planning Board, which commissions the comprehensive plan revision, must make this process transparent and should begin to solicit input from residents. This process is lengthy, so public engagement should start soon. Time is of the essence, as developers have clearly shown interest in the town’s land resources.

We Johnston residents should all contact our elected representatives to encourage them to make this process transparent, effective, thoughtful, and timely. Johnston’s future is on the line.

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  1. Not just Johnston. Every Rhode Island community should be dusting off their existing solar ordinances and giving them a critical review. Developers are crowding in and will have the state paved with solar panels before we realize what hit us. They are prepared and ready with cash, expertise and plans. Most towns are using outdated ordinances that did not adequately predict the future we are now engaged in.

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