After months of delays, the Planning Commission on April 6 voted to grant preliminary plan approval for Revity Energy’s 8.1-megawatt solar energy installation off Natick Avenue.
The nine-member commission voted 8-1 to accept Planning Department staff’s recommendation in favor of the preliminary plan, which includes an amended set of conditions. Commissioner Robert DiStefano Jr. was the sole dissenter.
Michael Smith, the commission’s chairman, said he was “impressed” with the manner in which planning staff utilized a “large amount of testimony” and feedback from commissioners to “meld those concerns into some positive changes” in the conditions for the project. He credited the staff and “everyone who’s participated in this process.”
Commissioner Fred Vincent added: “The staff did a great job … It wasn’t a simple job. It’s been a long road.”
The Natick Avenue solar project was the last commercial-scale installation to receive approval under the city’s former solar ordinance. Early last year, in an effort to halt the spread of commercial-scale projects in residential areas of Western Cranston, the city adopted changes to its solar rules that bar such projects in A-80 residential zones.
The project remains the subject of litigation in Superior Court, where a group of neighbors to the Natick Avenue site have challenged its 2019 master plan approval. A decision in that case is pending. Additionally, the City Council’s Public Works Committee last month delayed any action on a request for new utility poles on Natick Avenue as part of the project until June.
The preliminary plan approval process has been lengthy, featuring hours testimony from attorneys, experts, opponents and others over the course of public hearings. It began in January and was continued to February, but those proceedings were not held over public access concerns after a duplicate link to the agenda – and the Zoom meeting – appeared on the city’s website.
Another five-hour session was held in early March, at which point public comment was closed. The developer at that point also agreed to an extension of the typical window for preliminary plan consideration, which allowed the commission to continue the proceedings at its next regular meeting rather than during a special session.
The April 6 discussion focused on the Planning Department’s final recommendation and a set of revised conditions based on feedback from residents and the commission.
The preliminary plan process focuses largely on specific aspects of the project and the conditions set by the Planning Commission during master plan approval. Neighbors and opponents of the Natick Avenue project have raised numerous concerns, including the project’s effect on property values, whether buffering and landscaping will be sufficient, the effect of blasting at the site, and the manner in which the solar installation will be connected to the electrical grid.
The commission ultimately agreed with staff’s recommendation to remove language requiring that the interconnection be placed underground. Planning Director Jason Pezzullo said after staff conducted additional research on that condition, it was determined the equipment that would be needed to facilitate the underground connection would create additional concerns.
“Once we got the answers, it became very clear that this is not what we want,” he said.
The commission also approved a condition that will create a $35,000 interest-bearing account, funded by the developer, meant to ensure the landscaping and buffering is maintained for the full life of the project regardless of any future changes in ownership or status.
Commissioner Robert Coupe motioned to strike that condition, arguing it went “beyond the scope” of the commission and planning staff.
In the end, his motion failed on a 3-6 vote. Coupe was joined by commissioners Ken Mason and Robert Strom in the minority.
Commissioner Kathleen Lanphear stood by the condition, noting that the funds would be returned to the developer once the project reaches its end and will only be used if the developer does not comply with other conditions.
“What we’re trying to do is mitigate impacts that are going to last for the life of the project … What we’re talking about is an impact that will be there to abutters and to residents for as long as that facility is operating,” she said.
Smith added: “This is a project that is so important, and quite different, frankly, from any of the other ones at least I’ve dealt with on the commission.”
Vincent said he was “very comfortable” with the condition, calling it “necessary in light of the history of this whole project.”
Before the vote, Coupe said his primary concern was “creating a new burden on the Planning Department to administer and monitor this.”
“I think we have an adequate plan in place aside from this. I don’t mean to diminish the need for adequate landscaping throughout the life of the project,” he said.
Other conditions require the developer to adhere to all requirements of the state fire marshal’s office related to any blasting, and to conduct blasting work only during the hours of 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays; bar the developer from using barbed wire or from installing fencing without a gap for wildlife to pass through; require the completion of four landscaping inspections, one before installation and three thereafter on an annual basis; and prohibit the developer from using herbicides at the location.