Planning board requests solar moratorium

Planning board requests solar moratorium

NORTH SMITHFIELD – Following in the footsteps of other communities overwhelmed with an influx of solar development, the North Smithfield Planning Board has requested the Town Council issue an emergency moratorium halting new solar applications pending changes to the town’s solar ordinance.

Megan Staples, an alternate member of the Planning Board appointed earlier this year, proposed the moratorium during a meeting last Thursday, Sept. 5. The board voted 6-0 to issue a formal request, with member David Punchak abstaining.

Staples told fellow board members she proposed the moratorium due to concerns about the large number of applications the town has received for commercial solar installations in recent months. The temporary measure, she said, would give the town “breathing room” to evaluate its solar ordinance and whether it’s working the way it was intended to.

“We seem to be getting applications for solar rapid fire now,” she said. “I like solar, it’s good, and I want it in town, but I’m a little concerned about where it’s going.”

Over the past 18 months, the town has considered proposals for five new solar farms totaling approximately 260 acres. In addition, an 8-acre solar farm off Old Oxford Road went online last December, bringing the total number of operational solar farms in North Smithfield to four. The projects have met mixed responses from residents and environmental groups, many of whom raise concerns over the clear cutting involved in projects on forested land.

If approved by the Town Council, the measure would place a hold on all new solar applications for a specified number of days. It would not affect solar applications already considered complete by the town Planning Department, including a controversial 39-megawatt project proposed by Green Development and several smaller projects already under review.

Staples said she modeled the moratorium off one previously used in Exeter, which passed a similar measure last December. At the time, Exeter was grappling with 12 new solar applications and had recently seen turnover on its Town Council due to disagreement over solar policy.

Green Development, one of the companies that submitted applications, later sued Exeter over the moratorium, but a Superior Court judge upheld the measure in March. In February, the town passed a new solar ordinance that gave greater consideration to the size of projects and their effect on the surrounding environment, officially ending the moratorium.

“There was a lot of turmoil that happened there,” Staples told fellow board members. “I don’t want to see that happen here. The number of applications coming in concerns me.”

Though the moratorium received the unanimous support of the Planning Board, it won’t go into effect unless passed by the Town Council, which holds its next meeting this Monday, Sept. 16. Town Council President Paul Vadenais said he couldn’t comment on the measure until he sees a formal request from the Planning Board, but at least one councilor has pledged his support. Councilor Paul Zwolenski, who served on the committee that developed the town’s original solar ordinance, told The Valley Breeze this week he agrees it might be time to review the town regulations regarding solar.

“There’s been a tremendous amount of applications for solar farms. Maybe it’s time we pumped the brakes and take a look at it,” he said.

Several other Planning Board members present at last week’s meeting expressed their support for the moratorium, including Chairman Gary Palardy, who said he felt the town’s current solar ordinance has gaps that should be reviewed. Board member Jeffrey Porter said he felt the town had been placed in reactive position with regard to solar and added he would prefer an ordinance that prioritizes already developed land over forest.

“Property owners have their rights and I understand that, but we don’t want to have a town that’s clear cut,” he said.

Board member Richard Keene also expressed support for the proposal, adding he thinks the town should create financial incentives to steer solar companies toward developed properties.

Residents and solar developers present at last week’s meeting also weighed in on the measure. Cynthia Roberts, co-founder of the residents’ group Engage North Smithfield, said she supports the moratorium and thinks the town should slow down on solar development, even if it has not yet reached the same level of applications as Exeter.

“Here it’s been slower and quieter and smaller, but there are residents who’ve been in line with wanting things to slow down,” she told the board.

Frank Epps, CEO of Energy Development Partners, also offered his thoughts on the moratorium, telling board members he supports it but requesting they exempt solar as an auxiliary use. Epps, who previously developed the plans for the Old Oxford Road project, explained he hopes to install panels next to a vacant building he owns on Industrial Drive to offset electricity costs, a project he said differs from commercial projects that sell electricity to National Grid.

The Conservation Commission also weighed in on the measure, with Vice-Chairman Mike Calo saying the group strongly supports a moratorium. The commission has previously been critical of projects located on forested land.

Staples told The Breeze she’s been planning to propose the moratorium since July, when an item titled “General discussion of Zoning Ordinance section 5.7 Solar Photovoltaic System Installations” first appeared on the monthly Planning Board agenda. The discussion was twice postponed due to lengthy Planning Board meetings that often went until after 10 p.m., with the item finally coming up for discussion last week. During that time, another solar farm was proposed and two others passed their preliminary stage of approval.