NORTH SMITHFIELD – The solar array proposal for 0 and 850 Iron Mine Hill Road hit a dead end last Thursday when the Planning Board rejected Pomham Solar’s master plan.
This rejection comes after a six-week process that included a public hearing continuation and a site visit.
Chairperson Gary Palardy recapped the site visit for those who were unable to attend, indicating that they toured the terrain along with one of the property’s neighboring residents. Palardy said the area designated for the array itself was “fairly flat,” answering previously stated concerns about the property’s unsuitable terrain for a solar array.
“Some significant rocks, the glaciers definitely made a path through there at one point, judging by the carvings and the big rocks there, but again, no blasting is being proposed,” Palardy noted.
Board member David Punchak said that the neighboring resident who previously expressed concerns about the surveyor’s stakes and markings seemed “a little more at ease” once he understood what all the marks were referencing.
Palardy also pointed out that the property comprises a younger forest than other sites the board has seen, with “very few trees more than a foot in diameter, and they’re thin enough that there was just a carpet of blueberry bushes.” This indicated to Palardy that the land had been cleared as recently as 50 or 75 years ago.
After the recap, the board distributed excerpts from the town’s 2019 comprehensive plan that board member Jeffrey Porter had presented at the previous meeting. Porter pointed out a number of points in the plan that were called inconsistent with the master plan provided by the applicant.
“While it checks one box, it does not check all these other boxes that we’re trying to accommodate,” Porter said, repeating previously stated concerns. The box checked, he said, was promoting environmental sustainability. The boxes left unchecked included preserving the rural character of the town, restoring and protecting farms, forests, and open spaces, and protecting existing environments from further development.
There were some questions from the board as to whether or not the inconsistencies were for the Zoning Board to consider. If the master plan had passed, Pomham would have sought special use permits for their project. One of the applicant’s legal representatives, Edward Pimentel, pointed out that there is a strong precedent of solar arrays being appropriately placed in residential zones.
Pimentel also tried to tell the board that adding another solar array to the town was not currently prohibited in any code or ordinances, and that approving the application would be in line with the town’s comprehensive plan’s goal to support renewable energy.
“What percentage of forest would a community have to give up in order to achieve its fair share of renewable energy, according to you?” board member Richard Keene asked after Pimentel made his argument in favor of the array.
“According to me, I respect the community’s rules. If this community says, ‘We’ve done 10 solar projects, introduced 20 megawatts’ whatever the number, these are theoretical numbers, ‘and we feel we’ve done our fair share,’ I respect that. I say from now on, we’ll only want to locate them in disturbed sites, we only want to locate them in commercially zoned properties, some communities have done that,” Pimentel said.
Keene and Porter both mentioned that the required tree clearing and forest fragmentation were issues to them.
“I think what Mr. Keene has said about the fragmentation of the forest, that’s going to be an issue, and I don’t think that needs to be explained any further,” Porter said.
“And I thank Mr. Pimentel for pointing out that until we consider regulations, or changes to the regulations, that this opens the door for endless, endless … we’ll keep getting solar projects. Unless we do that, we won’t ever achieve our fair share of solar projects,” Keene said.
Keene made the motion that they approve the plan to trigger the vote, but paused during discussion to explain why he’d be voting against it.
“I made the motion, but I still feel strongly about the forest defragmentation, and I just want to say before the vote gets to me that I am going to vote against it, and solely for that reason. Other than that, I like your project, if it was in a different place I would be all for it wholeheartedly. But I have significant concerns about what’s left of our contiguous forest and trying to preserve it,” Keene said.
The master plan approval was denied in a 3-2 vote, with members Michael Fournier, Porter, and Keene voting no, and Punchak and Palardy voting yes.
Attorney Thomas Carlotto was also there representing Islander Solar, LLC, and confirmed that provided reports would be entered into the record.
The applicant, Islander Solar, LLC, may appeal the Planning Board’s decision through the Zoning Board of Appeals. If the Zoning Board of Appeals were to approve them, they would later return to the Planning Board.