The high-profile debate over a proposed large-scale solar power installation off Natick Avenue will continue into next month.
By a 6-3 margin, the city’s Planning Commission voted Jan. 8 to continue master plan review of the proposal until its Feb. 5 meeting. That vote followed an approximately three-hour hearing on the project, as well as a unanimous vote to incorporate into the process a new set of conditions submitted on behalf of abutters and concerned citizens.
“It’s been a very eye-opening experience tonight, hearing first-hand the residents and their concerns,” said Commissioner Robert DiStefano Jr., who made the motion to continue the matter.
Southern Skies Renewable Energy RI LLC’s plan calls for the construction of an approximately 8.1-megawatt solar power installation on just less than 30 acres of a 64-acre property off Natick Avenue. The commission’s master plan review process began in December and had been continued to the Jan. 8 meeting.
The property, which is owned by Ronald Rossi, lies in an A-80 residential zone. Under changes approved last year, the city allows for large-scale solar energy facilities as a by-right use in that zone.
Commercial solar energy facilities, including other developments from Southern Skies, have been the subject of intense debate in Cranston and other Rhode Island communities of late. The commission’s meeting, held in the Cranston High School East auditorium, drew a large turnout, while another contentious issue – Carpionato Group plans for a Topgolf facility on the Sockanosset Cross Road site formerly occupied by Citizens Bank’s corporate offices – also appeared on the evening’s agenda.
The commission gave unanimous approval to the master plan for Topgolf and recommended a zoning change needed as part of the project. The zoning change requires City Council approval.
Robert Murray, attorney for Southern Skies, said the Natick Avenue plan had been updated since December to reflect the removal of approximately 500 panels from the southeastern corner of the property.
That change, he said, was made due to difficulties in terms of topography and other conditions on that portion of the site. He also said the developer plans to maintain the approximately 250 kilowatts of power tied to the panels in question through other means.
“[The panels] were removed [from the plan]. There’s quite a detailed process we have to go through … It is our intention to maintain this project at 8.1 megawatts,” he said. “There’s a number of alternatives we have to do that. Sometimes it has to do with the type of panel you use that might have a little higher wattage, so you don’t have to have the same one-for-one placement.”
Murray also addressed concerns over whether the plan includes sufficient buffers and vegetative visual barriers to protect the site’s neighbors, saying the developer is “committed to working with the abutters and trying to satisfy them to do what we can as best as possible.”
The presence of a Tennessee Gas pipeline that runs along part of the property has been another major concern of abutters and opponents of the project, given that the developer has indicated blasting will be done as part of the site preparation.
Murray sought to reassure commissioners and members of the public on that issue.
“We are not talking about a lot of blasting here,” he said. “It’s done safely, it’s done with proper notification … and that's what will happen here.”
Patrick Dougherty, a Narragansett attorney representing abutters and other parties, urged the Planning Commission not to grant master plan approval, calling the body the “only failsafe step in this process.” He also called the planned development “wholly inconsistent” with the city’s Comprehensive Plan.
“I’m going to ask you to exercise your powers … Let [the applicants] come back with something that fits and is in keeping with your comprehensive plan,” he told the commission.
He added, “This is not land-banking. This is development … Please, deny this. Do not thrust this upon the citizens of the area.”
Ashley Sweet, Exeter’s town planner, presented a report highlighting an analysis of the project she conducted on behalf of abutters and concerns parties. She questioned the focus of city officials on preventing housing developments at sites such as the Natick Avenue property – noting that additional housing is “much needed throughout the state” – and also pointed to issues of consistency within the city’s Comprehensive Plan.
“I understand solar development and renewable energy development is an important item for the city, it’s important for the state, but when you’re talking about putting an industrial use in the middle of a residential neighborhood, you need to take the needs of the neighborhood and the concerns of the neighborhood first and foremost,” she said.
On behalf of the site’s abutters and other concerned neighbors, Natick Avenue resident Drake Patten presented the commission with a list of six conditions and requested they be attached to any master plan approval.
The first condition seeks to enhance an “inadequate” buffering plan, setting no-clear zones of at least 400 feet on the property’s north, south, northeast and northwest faces and outlining parameters for vegetation to be used in plantings. The second seeks inspections of nearby septic systems, wells and building foundations before and after any blasting work, and a requirement that the developer pay for any damages.
The third condition outlines a schedule for notification of any blasting work, while the fourth would limit hours of operation between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. on weekdays. The fifth condition seeks to ensure the protection of wildlife and pollinators at the site, and the sixth relates to protection of real estate values.
“We request the developers work in collaboration with appraisers and our counsel on a reasonable formula for protecting [against a] loss in post-construction real estate value,” Patten said of the final condition.
She added, “[Southern Sky Renewable Energy RI president Ralph] Palumbo has brought his family to these meetings and made a point of saying he’s in the community and cares deeply about the community, so this is what we’d like him to do.”
Planning staff recommended that the commission approve the project’s master plan, finding it in keeping with the city’s Comprehensive Plan.
Some commissioners, however, felt the concerns voiced during the meeting – and the incomplete map of the planned solar panel siting – required additional action and more time for review.
“I find the conditions of approval, based on what we’ve heard tonight, to not adequately address real issues, both dealing with the Comprehensive Plan but also mitigation,” Commissioner Fred Vincent said before making a motion to incorporate the conditions presented by Patten.
“I’m not saying we agree with every line of those six conditions … For tonight’s purposes, Mr. Palumbo has advised me to say, that’s a starting point, we’re willing to have the dialogue toward trying to achieve those the best we can,” Murray told the commissioners and planning staff.
There was initially some confusion among commissioners regarding the specific nature of the vote. It was at first unclear whether a motion to incorporate Patten’s list of conditions included master plan approval.
As a result, at the suggestion of Assistant City Solicitor Stephen Marsella, the board voted on the new conditions and the master plan separately.
Commissioner Kathleen Lanphear said she supported continuing the matter until February due to concerns over the updated plan’s realignment of panels on the project site.
“I have concerns that we don’t have a plan that shows us all of the solar arrays … I don’t feel that we’re at a point where we should vote on something,” she said. “I think it’s a dangerous precedent to vote on something like that that leaves 2.5 percent of a project not detailed enough for, at least, my voting for a master plan approval.”
Commissioners Steven Spirito, Ken Mason and Robert Strom voted against the continuation. Chairman Michael Smith joined Lanphear, DiStefano, Vincent and commissioners Ann Marie Maccarone and Joseph Morales in voting for the continuation.
In other business:
Commissioners unanimously issued a favorable recommendation on a proposed ordinance that would institute a moratorium on solar farms in Cranston pending a review of zoning and performance standards.
City Planner Jason Pezzullo said the ordinance would provide for a six-month halt on commercial solar project applications to allow for a “comprehensive, top-to-bottom review and rewrite of our entire solar regulatory scheme.”
“I think the time has come, especially since the state has been working on this issue,” he said. “We’ve learned a lot over the last two or three years, not only from our own experiences, but those around the state.”
Pezzullo said the six-month timeline, with a possible extension at the discretion of the City Council, would be sufficient for the required work.
“I think that six months, we could get it done,” he said. “I don’t really think we need to be here next Christmastime, still talking about an ordinance that should take us less than six months to accomplish.”
The measure was scheduled to go before the council’s Ordinance Committee for consideration Jan. 17.
The commission additionally approved a master plan submission from the Carpionato Group, operating as 100 Sockanosset LLC, for the proposed Topgolf entertainment complex and issued a favorable recommendation to the City Council for a zoning change needed as part of the development plans.
Both votes were unanimous. The motion regarding the zoning change was made by Spirito and seconded by DiStefano, while the master plan motion was made by DiStefano and seconded by Vincent.
The Topgolf proposal has drawn vocal opposition from some residents of the Garden City area. In a message to councilors ahead of the Planning Commission’s meeting, Pauline DeRosa, founder of the Garden City Alliance, called the proposal “an affront to the constituents of not only Garden City and its surrounding communities but also to the entire city of Cranston.”
Concerns have focused on potential noise and traffic issues, as well as the visual impact of the proposed facility.
“This type of venue is not appropriate for such a tight, small community,” DeRosa’s message reads. “There must be other locations where Topgolf would fit in perfectly and not have such a negative impact to the area.”
Planning staff members have pointed to studies discounting the traffic concerns, while the project’s backers tout it as a quality development.
“TopGolf knows what they're doing. They're not experimenting. They've got a great facility,” Kelly Coates, Carpionato’s president, told media during the meeting.
Smith spoke highly of the project.
“In greatest respect to folks who have voiced concerns … This has been the most complete and well thought-out application that I have seen in my 10 years as a member of the Planning Commission,” he said. “And it is also the most information I have ever gotten on a project.”
He added, “We have heard from the public, and I have not heard anything that would give me pause not to support this.”
The zoning change would classify the site as being in a C-5 zone with modified conditions, specifically allowing commercial recreation, cultural uses, recreational membership clubs, commercial off-street parking and electric vehicle charging stations at the location. It also seeks an accessory height limit of 190 feet to allow for netting and support poles as part of the golf operation, along with signage allowances.
The council’s Ordinance Committee was scheduled to consider the zoning change on Jan. 17.
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