Glocester adopts relaxed rules for solar energy projects

Glocester adopts relaxed rules for solar energy projects

GLOCESTER - To encourage solar energy, the Town Council last week granted final approval to an ordinance that sets almost no restrictions on installation of the increasingly prevalent renewable energy projects.

The council by unanimous vote at its Dec. 5 Town Hall meeting for the second and final time passed the ordinance, prepared by Town Planner Raymond Goff. The measure is aimed at ground-mounted solar installations rather than the panels a homeowner might erect on a roof. For the latter, only a building permit is required, Goff said.

"We aimed for a very simplified ordinance," Goff said in his remarks to the council. "We would like to encourage green energy." Solar projects have minimal impact on abutters and town services, he said, and "we did not want to stop solar facilities in town."

The ordinance: allows solar facilities in all eight zones; limits height to 12 feet from the ground; follows setback requirements in place in the zoning ordinance; requires utility lines to be buried underground; and says facilities must adhere to the State Building Code and the National Electrical Code. Also, the site must be secured with a fence around the perimeter and "must be properly screened from abutting properties."

"This is too basic," objected Linda Nichols, taxpayer as well as volunteer coordinator and resource commissioner for the town. "I do not agree with this, it is just too basic. I don't think it goes far enough."

Zoning board approval is no longer needed for solar installations, Nichols complained, and no distinction is made between residential and commercial facilities. She questioned Goff's qualifications to prepare the ordinance and suggested that the issue "be reviewed and studied more. We're going too fast."

Councilman William E. Reichert, who is building a solar facility on his property on Old Snake Hill Road in Chepachet, noted how people complain about all sorts of energy projects, like the turbines in wind projects, and he suggested that solar energy has the least effect on neighbors of all the generating devices.

"You're going to need a fairly substantial piece of property" to have a solar-based system, said Councilman Edward C. Burlingame, regarding impact on neighbors. "This won't work on an acre in someone's backyard."

Goff reminded the council that he has been town planner for 15 years, holds a master's degree in planning and has authored dozens of ordinances for the town. "I feel I am more than qualified to write an ordinance for the Town of Glocester," he said somewhat heatedly.

Goff said he and the Planning Board researched about 15 ordinances from other communities to see "what would fit" for Glocester and held a series of public workshops over several months.

An "encumbrance" to development, Goff said, was the prior need for zoning board approval. He said it can cost an applicant "thousands of dollars" to prepare a zoning variance request and that's why the requirement has been eliminated. He mentioned five or six applications pending before the zoning board right now. The measure can apply to either residential or commercial use, he said.

Councilman George O. "Buster" Steere Jr. praised Goff and the Planning Board for doing "a lot of work" on the ordinance and told Nichols she should have attended the planning workshops when the measure was being discussed.

Councilman Steven A. Sette Jr. and Burlingame pointed out that no one knows yet even at the state level how the solar installations will be assessed and taxed, but both council members made a point of saying they do not favor any PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) agreements.

Reichert is working with FRIEnergy, based in Rockwell, Texas, with an office on Cedar Swamp Road in Smithfield, to install on his property a five-acre solar farm of about 4,000 panels, with a value estimated at $3.1 million. Jim Barrett, principal of FRIEnergy, is also working with the Smithfield School Department to possibly install solar components at the schools.

According to RIEnergy.org, a website the state established last year, there are more than 100 known solar photovoltaic installations in Rhode Island, with plans in the works under the Distributed Generation program for five more, with the largest (3.71 megawatts) at the East Providence landfill. A map on the website identifying the state's energy resources says Glocester, and "most" of northwestern Rhode Island, have "high potential" for solar power due to their elevation. An undated map shows two solar installations each in Glocester and Smithfield, with one each in Foster and Scituate, but there is no indication if these are actually operating or just in the planning stages.