Proposed moratorium too late to stop some solar farms

The Cranston Herald ·

City Planner Jason Pezzullo says it’s time for Cranston to “tap the brakes” on the proliferation of renewal energy projects, but the City Council’s proposed moratorium doesn’t come in time to slow or alter an 8.1-megawatt solar farm on Natick Avenue and quite possibly two other solar projects already in the pipeline.

The Natick Avenue project covering about 30 wooded acres of a 64-acre parcel that is part of the Ronald Rossi Christmas tree farm was reviewed by the Planning Commission Tuesday night. The planning department presented its revised recommendations on approval of the project taking into consideration concerns raised at the commission’s December meeting and a subsequent bus tour of the site by commission members and neighboring residents.

Because of deadline restrictions, Herald coverage of the hearing that included the controversial request of the Carpionato Group for a TopGolf potentially located on the grounds of the former Citizens Bank along Route 37 is not in this edition.

“It’s okay to slow down a bit,” Pezzullo said of a moratorium in an interview last week.

His concern is primarily directed at solar projects, although he said the city also needs to look at wind farms that have become an issue for Alpine Estate residents with the erection of seven giant wind turbines – more than 500 feet high – by Green Development and its owner Mark DePasquale on nearby property in Johnston.

While a moratorium introduced by City Council President Michael Farina has the backing of the council, it still must follow the hearing process that will take place later this month.

Pezzullo suggests a moratorium of about six months that would provide time to review the city’s renewable energy project regulations as well as what other municipalities and states are doing while applying a deadline to complete the process. He points out that a final report can always be extended if additional time is needed.

It’s what Farina is looking for.

“Let’s take a step back,” he said Monday.

He pointed out that when the council approved zoning to allow renewal energy projects in 2015, it was not imagined so many would be concentrated in western Cranston. That’s not all that concerns him. He said he would like to see “energy credits come back to the city.”

Pezzullo envisions some of the issues raised in a study, including the percentage of a lot covered by solar panels, required buffers and what becomes of the land after the life of the farm, which is generally considered to be 25 years.

Pezzullo considers solar farms as “putting the land on ice,” although there are no mechanisms such as a land trust, which he believes is needed, for it to revert to open space once the panels are removed.

“It’s going to be a rigorous policy debate,” he said. “Where are we going to go without harming the community?”

However, because the Natick Avenue project, advanced by Southern Sky Renewable Energy RI of Warwick, complies with zoning regulations, has been certified by the department and is in review, the moratorium would not apply. It would also not apply to two other proposed projects if those developers finalize their submissions and gain certification before the council approves a moratorium.

On the drawing boards is a 3.1-megawatt solar farm on the former landfill on Pontiac Avenue by ISM Development Inc. and a second, larger 5-megawatt proposal for western Cranston. Pezzullo said there has been discussion of the western Cranston farm but no formal application at this time. He did not disclose the location or the developer.

“Everyone knows a moratorium is coming…they’re under the gun [to file an application],” he said.

At this time, Pezzullo said, the smallest of the city’s solar farms is operational, a 0.5-megawatt facility operated by Southern Sky on Seven Mile Road. A second 2-megawatt project has gained master planning approval for Seven Mile Road.

A 10-megawatt farm, being developed by Hope Farm Solar LLC, is also in the works for Hope Road. Behind the development is RES Energy Development, a British company with an American division. Solar panels and materials for the project are being staged on the property and the site has been partially fenced.

The largest of the solar developments, which Pezzullo said is about to come online, is the 60-acre Gold Medal Farm built by Southern Sky off Lippitt Avenue in western Cranston. This is a 21.5-megawatt project.

Brownfields, like the former landfill on Pontiac Avenue, are considered to be ideal sites for solar as it is land that generally can’t be used for other purposes. But there are complications to developing these sites, as Pezzullo is learning from the Pontiac Avenue plan. The landfill is a sealed site designed to prevent it from leaching contaminants into the nearby Pawtuxet River and the ground water. This means pile footings for the panels’ stands can’t be used, as they would puncture the seal. The alternative is sled-like foundations.

Brownfields, commercial sites, rooftops and over parking lots is just where Drake Patten of Natick Road thinks solar belongs. The woodlands across from her on Hurricane Hill and Cluck Farm would be leveled for the Southern Skies proposal on the Rossi property.

Patten recognizes that the Rossi property is zoned residential and that residential development is likely, but by granting renewal development by right as part of the zone “manufacturing” would occur across the street.

In a four-page letter to the Planning Commission, Patten levels some of the blame on Governor Gina Raimondo’s mandate for renewal energy. Patten has met with staff members from the governor’s office as well as Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello, who represents the neighborhood.

“I have heard only this: ‘it’s not the state’s problem – this is for the cities and towns to sort out.’ My take-away is that the governor created an admittedly noble (and, for her, politically expedient) initiative (once the rocket is up) but is allowing our cities and towns to be torn apart by the on-the-ground impact of renewable energy and its trade-offs [where they come down],” she writes.

When asked about the Natick Avenue project Monday night, Mattiello called neighborhood concerns genuine and not simply of NIMBYism (not in my back yard). He said he thought the project large for the site and was concerned that recently repaved Natick Avenue might be torn up by truck and construction equipment traffic. He also thought water runoff from the solar array would be problematic.

Patten appealed to the commission to reject the Natick Avenue project. In her letter she writes, “If we are prepared to place a moratorium on renewable energy projects across our city out of concern for what is happening, it stands to reason that we also know that something truly is amiss in the projects currently being reviewed. SSRE and the Planning Department are telling all of us that the Natick Ave project is a ‘by-right’ development and therefore it must [and will] pass. If that were so, then it would not be coming to you for review. But it has come to you – and you are where we have placed our trust to protect the future of our city. As my neighbor said at the last meeting, ‘You are our firewall.’ I encourage you to reject this project and, in so doing, to allow the moratorium to provide the time and shared opportunity to create a measured and responsible renewable energy policy for Cranston that we can all embrace and support.”