Econox solar farm clears zoning hurdle

Econox solar farm clears zoning hurdle

NORTH SMITHFIELD – The town’s latest solar development has received approval from the Zoning Board and is on track to begin construction later this year.

Econox Renewables, a company based in Winchester, Mass., appeared before the Zoning Board Aug. 27 to seek a special use permit to build an 840-kilowatt solar farm on land off Greenville Road. Board members voted 5-0 to approve the project, with member Mario DiNunzio recusing himself as an abutter to the property.

The farm will be constructed on two lots totaling about 30 acres to the east of Greenville Road. Town Administrator Gary Ezovski owns the land under the company name Grand Banks Commerce Park LLC, which has drawn criticism from some residents. In May, the Rhode Island Ethics Commission issued an advisory opinion that his role as town administrator does not conflict with his interest in the project since none of the decision-making bodies related to the project report to or are appointed by the administrator.

“Although the petitioner and Econox are business associates under the Code of Ethics, the petitioner is neither a member of nor employed by the Planning or Zoning Boards, and does not have a role in their decision-making regarding applications for special use permits,” the opinion stated. “Further, the petitioner is not appearing or representing himself before either the Planning or Zoning Boards.”

The property spans either side of the power lines south of Route 146. According to David Russo, a project manager for DiPrete Engineering, all of the panels will be built on about 3.2 acres on the south side of the power lines. The company plans to clear about 7.2 acres of trees for the farm, with some panels assembled on land that has already been cleared. The project will also require a wetlands permit and a sediment control plan from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management.

Chairman Robert Najarian raised concerns about the access road to the property, a concern that was shared by Planning Board members when the company received their preliminary approval in July. The road switchbacks from Greenville Road to the solar farm site about 420 feet above road level, with the steep grade and tight turns presenting a possible difficulty for first responder vehicles, according to Najarian. Company representatives said they planned to redesign the entryway during the next phase of engineering and address the concerns before receiving their final approval for the project. The board required written approval of the redesign from police and fire as a condition of the project approval.

Though the project is located in a rural residential zoning district, with the closest resident about 700 feet away, Najarian noted that the project is consistent with other uses in the area. National Grid power lines already run through the property, and a much larger solar project has been planned by Green Development for a neighboring property.

The project requires final approval from the Planning Board before beginning construction. Scott Milnes, CEO of Econox, said that if all goes according to plan, the company hopes to begin construction later this year. Construction will take about four months, with the project expected to go online by next spring.