Douglas Pike residents push back, but solar project wins a nod

Douglas Pike residents push back, but solar project wins a nod

A map submitted to the North Smithfield Planning Board shows the location of a 900-kilowatt solar farm proposed for land between Douglas and Providence Pikes in relation to other landmarks in town.

NORTH SMITHFIELD – In a show of opposition that’s becoming a repeat scenario in town, a group of residents are pushing back against a renewable energy project in their neighborhood, this time a solar farm proposed between Douglas and Providence Pikes.

Sergio DeCurtis, a landowner who lives on a portion of the property at 2361 Providence Pike, has submitted plans to build a 900-kilowatt solar farm on approximately 3.3 acres in a larger, 29-acre lot. As part of the project DeCurtis plans to subdivide the property to build the array on the western portion closer to Douglas Pike while keeping his home on the eastern side near Providence Pike.

In a hearing before the Planning Board last Thursday, Aug. 1, where the board narrowly voted to move the project forward, DeCurtis and a team of engineers assured members that the project, located within a rural-agricultural zone on the Smithfield line, would include a 100-foot setback from any neighboring properties. The project, located in the woods, would also include an additional tree buffer to partially screen it from observers.

The presentation did little to quell the fears of neighbors such as Nicole Waybright, a Smithfield resident who lives just over the town line. Waybright raised concerns about fire hazards and development in a “quiet, serene area” she said had been home to her and other neighbors for more than 15 years.

“It’s totally greenwashing. It’s an environmental argument to support a project for profit where it doesn’t belong,” she said.

Other neighbors, including Kirk and Laurie Magnussen of Providence Pike, contested DeCurtis’s claim that they wouldn’t be able to see the development from their properties, prompting a terse exchange that had Planning Board Chairman Gary Palardy stepping in as referee. The neighbors and the developer also clashed over the environmental merits of the project, citing opposite research about the amount of carbon emissions offset by solar farms constructed in formerly wooded areas.

DeCurtis, who has owned the land since 1995, defended the project, telling board members it would have a minimal impact on surrounding properties. The North Smithfield resident owns a total of 49 acres on both sides of the town line and argued the proposal would be relatively small compared with other development options.

“I’m approached at least twice a month by developers who would like to buy the entire parcel and pump a street right through from Douglas Pike to Providence Pike and put 25 houses in there,” he said.

The board was divided on the project, but ultimately sided with the landowner in a 3-2 vote that saw members Michael Fournier, Richard Keene and David Punchak voting in favor of advancing it to the next stage of the approval process and Chairman Palardy and member Jeffrey Porter voting against. The board also issued a positive recommendation to the Zoning Board but included a long list of conditions for the project, including compliance with the town’s noise ordinance, review by the Fire Department, a $27,000 decommissioning bond, a tree buffer that goes all the way around the solar arrays and approval by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management.

The project will now go to the Zoning Board to seek a special use permit before returning to the Planning Board for final approval.