The city’s Planning Commission has narrowly granted master plan approval to a proposed large-scale solar power installation off Natick Avenue – but a legal challenge appears likely.
The 5-4 vote in favor of conditional master plan approval on Feb. 5 represented the culmination of months of heated debate over the proposal from Southern Sky Renewable Energy RI LLC to construct an 8.1-megawatt solar facility on property owned by Ronald Rossi.
Commission Chairman Michael Smith and commissioners Ken Mason, Joseph Morales, Steven Spirito and Robert Strom voted in favor of master plan approval. Commissioners Robert DiStefano Jr., Kathleen Lanphear, Anne Marie Maccarone and Fred Vincent were opposed.
Planning Director Jason Pezzullo said the commission’s decision was officially recorded Monday. The 20-day appeals window, he said, begins with the formal recording.
Principal Planner Joshua Berry on Feb. 5 reiterated the planning staff’s favorable recommendation on the project. A revised site plan submitted by the applicant, he said, “looks substantially the same as the previous site plan, but there are some subtle differences” – primarily regarding reconfiguration of solar panels after roughly 500 were removed from the southeastern corner of the property due to difficult topography and other conditions.
Berry said planning staff found the project to be consistent with the city’s Comprehensive Plan.
“We feel that there is a net benefit, environmentally, from this project,” he added.
Master plan review of the project first appeared on the Planning Commission’s agenda in December. The matter was continued until the commission’s January meeting, at which point it was continued again until February – although the commission voted to close the public hearing portion of the proceedings in January.
Despite that, a number of opponents of the Natick Avenue project filled benches in City Hall’s Council Chambers. Roughly 10 people held signs reading, “By right = not right. Do right. Vote no!” The signs reference the city’s current rules allowing large-scale solar projects “by right” in multiple zoning districts, including the A-80 zone in which the Natick Avenue site is located.
Opponents of commercial-scale solar projects, particularly in residential areas of Western Cranston, marked a victory recently with the city’s adoption of a nine-month moratorium while new rules are developed. The Natick Avenue proposal and another for a roughly 3.1-megawatt installation on top of a capped landfill off Pontiac Avenue – which also received master plan approval Feb. 5 – were the final two projects under consideration prior to the enactment of the moratorium ordinance, which Mayor Allan Fung signed last week.
Narragansett attorney Patrick Dougherty, who represents abutters of the Natick Avenue site and other concerned citizens, asserted the closure of public comment at the January gathering prevented residents from having a “meaningful opportunity” to address changes made to the plan and additional documentation submitted during the subsequent weeks. He urged the commission to request a 90-day extension of the master plan approval period from the project’s developer.
“I don’t think that this is properly before you for a decision. This is unsettled,” he said.
Dougherty criticized what he described as “zealous advocacy” on the part of the Planning Department. He called the inclusion of a Superior Court case related to the Hope Farm solar project in the exhibits compiled by planning staff “very misleading.”
Dougherty also said the project will result in a “forever change” to the site in question.
“It’s a complete disruption of the neighborhood,” he said.
Dougherty also said, “Obviously, I’m stating these objections for the purposes of grounds of appeal.”
Robert Murray, the attorney for Southern Sky, countered that the project has been “well vetted” by planning officials.
“It’s time to vote,” he said, rejecting the possibility of an extension.
During the Planning Commission’s January hearing, the review of the Natick Avenue project had been continued largely to allow for the review of an additional set of proposed conditions submitted by Natick Avenue resident Drake Patten.
Those conditions sought to enhance the buffering plan for the project; provide for inspections of nearby septic systems, wells and building foundations before and after any blasting work at the site; set a specific schedule and work hours during construction of the solar installation; protect wildlife and pollinators at the site; and create a mechanism for the protection against any “loss in post-construction real estate value” for local homeowners.
Planning staff recommended additional conditions based on the wildlife and pollinator protections, as well as new – but more limited – language regarding the buffering and blasting issues. No additional conditions were recommended based on the other proposals.
At the Feb. 5 meeting, Berry said some of the conditions proposed in Patten’s letter would be “problematic in terms of setting precedent, in terms of enforcement.”
Vincent, who made a motion in January to incorporate Patten’s conditions in the process, had sharp words for Southern Sky during the Feb. 5 meeting.
Vincent said while he “did not expect all six conditions to be agreed to,” he intended for the project’s developers, planning staff and concerned citizens to engage in further dialogue in hopes of producing “some constructive changes.” Patten’s conditions, he said, “appeared to me to be a well-articulated summary of the main concerns the commission had heard from so many neighbors and abutting property owners.”
But instead of a dialogue occurring, Vincent said, Murray drafted a written response that rejected the majority of the proposed conditions – and which was not forwarded or copied to Patten.
“I assumed that this dialogue might bring parties face to face to listen and discuss directly the problematic issues presented to the commission during the previous public hearings. That did not happen. Not even close,” he said.
He added, “This is not community involvement or inclusion by the developer…As a commissioner, I am very disappointed in Southern Sky and can only assume that their pledge to work with the neighbors was only an empty promise.”
He also said, “Obviously, there was a misunderstanding by the staff of my intention at our last meeting.”
Vincent recommended the commission add a condition requiring that a professional landscape architect be hired to conduct an independent peer review of buffer plans for the site. The architect would seek input from an advisory committee composed of representatives of the developer and Planning Department, a member of the commission and two representatives of the neighborhood, including one abutting property owner.
The recommendation was later added as a condition of master plan approval.
DiStefano, who made the motion to continue the review of the Natick Avenue project in January, echoed Vincent’s sentiment. He said he also intended for the parties involved to take part in a “face to face” discussion.
“It’s a little disheartening to sit here a month later after a continuance, only to find out, not only did that meeting not occur…but also that only the planning office received this information,” he said.
He added, “I also have concerns I don’t feel have been addressed yet.”
Other commissioners, however, had a different perspective on the process that followed Patten’s submission. Spirito said he had been under the impression that the discussion among the parties would occur during preliminary plan review, which will be the next phase of the project.
Smith agreed, saying he was “not under the impression it was a face to face issue.” He was supportive, however, of Vincent’s proposed amendment.
“I think it would go a long way to getting a dialogue going,” he said.
Smith also spoke at length about his reasoning for supporting master plan approval.
“To me, the ultimate reason we're doing this…is to combat climate change,” he said.