Archaeological study for solar property raises questions

Archaeological study for solar property raises questions

NORTH SMITHFIELD – Another town project is facing questions over the possible presence of historical artifacts on its target property.

Last Thursday, Feb. 6, historical preservation became the focus of a hearing on Green Development’s proposed 180-acre solar farm off Iron Mine Hill Road when a member of the Planning Board raised questions about the accuracy of a recent archaeological study.

The study, overseen by Greg Walwer of Archaeological Consultant Services, was completed as part of the review process for the company’s preliminary application. After reviewing the results, Walwer told board members, the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission concluded it had no objection to the project.

However, one board member, Richard Keene, raised questions about the process and results. Keene, who also serves as president of the North Smithfield Heritage Association, referred to the study as “incomplete,” alleging it failed to mention several important historical features of the property.

“My questions don’t relate so much to what’s in the report as what’s not in it,” he said.

Keene questioned the report’s finding that there was little in the way of stone walls on the property, saying a substantial section of stone wall would be historically significant. Walwer acknowledged stone walls were present, but said his team didn’t find them to have historic value.

“It’s not to say they’re not there, it’s just to say nothing stands out enough to warrant further investigation,” he said.

Keene also asked if the team discovered a historic building foundation that he said stands about 100 feet from where they conducted the study.

“If there is, we missed it,” said Walwer.

It’s not the first time historical features have come up with regard to a major local development. In the early 2000s, the Planning Board denied an application by Narragansett Improvement to build a 200-acre housing development off Douglas Pike following testimony the site was home to Native American burial mounds. The company filed suit after it was discovered the archaeologist who gave the testimony had presented false credentials, and in 2018, the project was up for reconsideration.

Like those who questioned the housing project, Keene asked whether stone structures on the solar farm property might have significance to local Native American tribes. As Walwer pointed out, the topic is controversial among archaeologists. While some believe many stone walls were built by Native American tribes as spiritual markers, others believe they’re little more than the scrap heaps of colonial farmers.

The topic is currently the subject of a research project being conducted by members of the Heritage Association.

Walwer told board members the group contacted the Narragansett Indian Tribal Historic Preservation Office while doing the study. The state’s review process, he said, also allows for input from members of the Wampanoag Tribe.

According to Keene, the site was at the center of North Smithfield history long before its incorporation as a town. In 1666, he said, members of the Sayles and Mowry families purchased property on the land now being considered for solar. The site eventually became part of an area known as Metacom Meadows, named for the Wampanoag chief involved in King Philip’s War in the 1670s.

In January, Keene asked if he and other members of the Heritage Association could walk the property to ensure all historical features were documented. The company initially agreed, but the invitation was later withdrawn at the request of one of the landowners, Ralph Ferra.

Last Thursday, company representatives assured Keene he would be able to tour the property with Walwer before the next meeting.

Residents and Planning Board members raised several other concerns at last week’s meeting. In addition to historical artifacts, they asked about blasting chemicals, soil testing, wildlife, construction oversight, the impact on radon in the bedrock and the location of a proposed substation.

The meeting also included a closed session when Planning Board members met privately to discuss “potential litigation and/or litigation” related to the solar farm application. Though town officials would not disclose details about the litigation, the company has been involved in lawsuits with several other towns related to denials of their projects. Last month, Green Development announced it was suing the towns of Coventry and Exeter over previous solar applications.

With a decision on the project’s preliminary application due by March 9, and several residents still wishing to speak on the project, the board scheduled a special meeting for next Thursday, Feb. 20. At that time, they’ll continue to hear questions from residents and responses from Green Development.

Comments

How many times will the "possible presence of historical artifacts on its target property." card be played?
So much for property owner's rights.

Dear North Smithfield, please be prepared to be sued if Green Dev does not get their way. Save your legal funds now. Best wishes.

Watching continued activity reacting to development for years leads me to confirm a long held opinion that North Smithfield is an absolutely beautiful bedroom community and will continue to be just that for many years to come. Good luck holding residential property taxes at affordable levels.

George Hemond
Living happily in Corpus Christi TX
We miss our RI friends BUT we
Relocated to escape RI State taxes & politics