Social media comments delay vote on Gold solar farm

Social media comments delay vote on Gold solar farm

NORTH SMITHFIELD – A key vote on the nine-megawatt solar farm proposed on Gold family property was delayed last week after Planning Board members raised concerns that comments made on social media could be interpreted as “ex parte” communications about the project.

The comments, made by board members Richard Keene and Gary Palardy, concerned a proposal to develop about 32 acres of property owned by David Gold for solar. Rhode Island Renewable Energy is behind the project, which would also involve turning over about 76 acres of property to the town as conservation land.

The project has proven controversial since last year, when Gold first announced his plans to sell it for a solar farm. In recent weeks, that debate has moved to social media, especially after Gold invited residents to walk the trails on the property several months ago. Much of the conversation has taken place on the Engage North Smithfield Facebook page, where many residents have expressed concerns about over-development and maintaining conservation space.

Last Thursday, July 9, Keene and Palardy disclosed that they have both taken part in these online conversations on occasion. State law mandates that boards make decisions based on what’s presented during the meetings and requires members to disclose any outside conversations about a project.

Project attorney John Mancini said he wasn’t concerned about the Facebook conversations, but Jeffrey Porter, a member of the Planning Board, said he didn’t feel comfortable voting on the project until board members had sent a full transcript of their comments to the applicant. His concern, he said, was that those comments could later come back to hurt the town if they were determined to be “ex parte” conversations that had swayed the board’s decision.

“I am not comfortable voting tonight. I will say that right out. I am not comfortable voting tonight at all,” he said.

The problem, explained Mancini, is that a vote on the project’s master application was already a week overdue, having originally been scheduled for July 2. Though it’s not the final stage of approval, a vote of denial at this point could prevent the project from moving any further in the process.

Mancini ultimately agreed to let the board hold off one more week and take their vote tonight, Thursday, July 16.

Last week’s discussion highlighted the conflicted emotions among board members and residents about the project. Though initially favorable to the idea of gaining conservation land, many residents later expressed their disapproval after learning that the solar panels would be located on a portion of the property that currently contains walking trails.

To ease some of the concerns, project representatives last week offered the town an additional 20 acres of land near Lake Bel Air on the other side of Mattity Road.

Under the current version of the project, the company would deed all of the property over to the town then lease back the portion needed for solar panels for 30 years.

Board members remained divided on the proposal as of last week, with Keene expressing support and Porter saying he was torn about the project.

Comments

How can anyone on the planning board vote yes for this project?

If approved, the town will own the land the solar panels are on and lease it back to the developer. This means the town is giving up property tax dollars it collects anually (~$10,000) for the land and is taking on immense liability when the project ends and it becomes time to decommision the panels and restore the forest.

I understand the developer will offer some form of bond for decommissioning but how can we ever properly estimate what the cost will be 30 years from now? Solar is a fairly new idea and there is very little data available to estimate the cost to remove. If the funds are insufficient, there will be no property owner to fall back on to pay for the clean up. It will be on all of us. Bad deal!!!

-Michael Davis

I echo your concerns Mr Davis! Taking ownership of an unknown quantity is a fool's errand. Taking on an unknown liability is flat out stupid. Find another avenue. The complete decommissioning cost of this solar farm must fall back upon the developer and not the citizens of the town. No carrot on a stick upon the outset is worth some perceived prize at the end. Don't gamble with an unknown that may cost us and our children dearly.