Council to vote on solar ordinance changes

Council to vote on solar ordinance changes

Green Development agreement passes on 4-1 vote

NORTH SMITHFIELD – A month after passing an emergency moratorium halting new solar applications, the Town Council got their first look Monday at proposed changes to the town’s solar zoning ordinance.

The changes, developed by the Planning Board, are intended to limit solar development in forested areas and encourage new solar farms on already developed land, according to a letter submitted to the council late last month. Among other things, the changes make it easier for businesses to install solar as an “accessory use” on existing buildings or property but place additional requirements on large projects that require tree clearing.

The changes were developed over several workshop sessions attended by members of the Planning Board. In September, the board formally requested the Town Council issue a moratorium on all new solar applications while members reviewed the town’s zoning ordinance. Among the concerns, members stated, were a large number of solar applications targeting forested areas.

On Monday, councilors received the proposed changes but held off on discussion until after a public hearing scheduled for Nov. 18. The council plans to vote on the proposed changes on Dec. 2, the same day the moratorium expires.

One of the biggest changes proposed in the ordinance is a clause allowing the town to ask for a one-to-one tree replacement of any large projects requiring tree clearing. Last year, a proposal to construct a 38.4-megawatt solar farm on 407 acres of forested property sparked protest from environmental groups who opposed the clearing of 180 acres of trees. Since then, other proposals have drawn similar criticism for their proposed tree clearing.

If approved, the change would allow the town to ask developers to replace cleared trees with native trees. The new trees could be located onsite or at another location in town.

The proposed changes also place more stringent requirements on developers to protect the town against possible abandonment of the solar arrays. The town currently requires companies to submit a decommissioning agreement in the form of cash or a bond to be used in the event the developer fails to dismantle the project when no longer in use.

Under the new ordinance, the town would require 100 percent of the decommissioning surety to be in the form of cash held in an escrow account. The amount would be determined by a peer review engineer.

On the same day they received the proposed changes this week, councilors gave their final approval for a tax treaty and development agreement with Green Development for the 407-acre solar farm proposed last year. On Monday, councilors continued to debate the merits of a cash versus bond decommissioning agreement, with Councilors Douglas Osier Jr. and Paul Zwolenski insisting the agreed-upon amount of $1.2 million, or approximately $30,000 per megawatt, was far too low for the massive project. Osier, with Zwolenski’s support, urged councilors to consider requiring a larger amount of cash as part of the decommissioning agreement, instead of a 50/50 split of cash and bond as previously discussed.

Osier ultimately succeeded in convincing councilors to require a 70/30 split of cash and bond, with Councilor Teresa Bartomioli casting the deciding vote in favor of more cash and Councilors Paul Vadenais and Claire O’Hara voting against. Under the new arrangement, the company is required to submit $840,000 cash and a $360,000 bond as surety against possible abandonment of the project. The final arrangement passed by a 4-1 vote, with Osier voting against the overall development agreement.

The proposed solar ordinance changes will not apply to the 407-acre Green Development project. A full copy of the proposed changes is available at the Municipal Annex.