Is a 'farm' a good neighbor?

Natick Ave. residents want light shed on proposed solar farm

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Drake Patten takes offense to the word “farm” when it is preceded by the word “solar.”

Patten knows what it’s like to raise produce and feed livestock. She is the “head farmer” at Cluck Farm on Natick Avenue.

But the prospect of a 29-acre solar farm across the street from her historic property has her and her neighbors concerned. Neither Patten nor those interviewed for this story are opposed to green energy. They favor it.

However, Patten finds “solar farm” disingenuous, for its array of photovoltaic panels while generating clean electricity are industrial, requiring in this case a significant alteration to the environment at the sacrifice of hundreds of trees and possible blasting and leveling of rock outcroppings.

The project has also shaken the tight knit community.

Neighbors know Ron Rossi, who owns the parcel and operates a Christmas tree farm on that portion of the land on Pontiac Avenue. They are friends and yet some, like Dan Zever, feel their trust has been betrayed as they didn’t receive advance notice of the project and now arrays of solar panels could be in their backyards.

As Rossi would still own the land, City Planner Jason Pezzullo sees the project as a means of “holding” the property until a point where the city has the resources to preserve it, should it choose, while generating tax revenue (about $55,000 a year) it would not otherwise receive.

Pezzullo said, “renewal energy is short term” [25 years is the projected life of the project and the term of the lease] and “to preserve it when the solar farm is defunct.”

If developed for single-family homes, he estimates somewhere between 15 to 25 houses could be built; chances of saving the property as a single parcel would be lost and it would cost the city as the cost of services required would exceed the taxes generated. Since there are not the resources, saving the land now through city or state purchase of development rights is not an option, he said.

“Subdivisions for residential do not pay for themselves,” he said in an interview Monday.

Under zoning amendments approved last year, a solar farm is an allowable development of the property, meaning it does not require a variance, special exception or a change of use by the City Council.

“This is an alternative to residential sprawling,” Pezzullo said of solar farms. He said the Natick Avenue project “falls squarely” into the intent of the zoning and that the planning department is “in support of a project like this.”

But it is not without review or subject to requirements by the city.

According to Robert Murray, attorney for Southern Skies Renewal Energy RI of Warwick that either is already operating or in the process of building five solar farms in Cranston, the company initiated discussions with Rossi in the summer. An application was submitted with the Planning Commission in October. An informational meeting with the neighbors was held on Nov. 28 and at its meeting last week the commission continued its review until Jan. 8. Meanwhile, commission members, city officials and interested parties were given a bus tour of the site on Saturday.

“A lot of the neighbors are concerned,” said Pezzullo, “[they] don’t know if it’s going to be built the way they say it’s going to built.” He said a primary function of the city is to “safeguard peoples’ interest.” Furthermore, he said, the full details of the project are not known at this early stage.

“People have a sense it’s all done. It’s a long process,” he said.

Murray provides some of the basic details. Overall, the project would produce 8.1 megawatts, making it larger than four of Southern Skies’ Cranston sites but about a third the size of its fifth, Meadow Gold, on Lippitt Avenue that is 21 megawatts. Where the project abuts neighbors there would be a 50-foot “no cut zone” plus a 20-foot buffer. The project will be fenced. Southern Skies would do plantings to screen the project. Five acres of wetlands along Natick Avenue would not be touched by the project and Murray believes motorists on Natick would only catch a quick glimpse of the solar panels in the vicinity of the site entrance on Natick.

A high pressure Tennessee Gas line that runs along the southern line of Rossi’s is also of concern to neighbors. Patten said the gas company was not aware of the proposed development until the neighbors notified them.

Murray said the gas line management company has been notified; and that the management company has provided the city and Southern with a series of protocols for development to occur within certain proximities of the line. Murray points out that the same gas line is on the Citizens Bank campus in Johnston and that extensive drilling and blasting was done on that site safely.

It has not been determined whether the removal of rock outcroppings will be necessary, but if blasting is required Murray said, “it would follow protocols and it will be done safely if it has to be done.” He said the solar panels that are three feet off the ground and are angled up to a height of 12 would follow the contour of the land. There would not be leveling of the site.

Murray estimated the cost of the project at $17 million to $18 million. In addition, Southern would post a “decommissioning” bond – the amount has not been determined – that would be used to remove the panels and their footings should the project be abandoned and for cleanup at the end of the lease should that not be done.

Carol and Carl Swanson, who bought their property on Natick Avenue 10 years ago, have joined with neighbors in retaining attorney Patrick Dougherty to represent their interests. The Swansons feel the project has been put in the fast lane and they have concerns over deforestation, the gas line, effects blasting might have to their well and septic system, drainage and new utility poles on Natick Avenue.

In an email, Carol Swanson writes that the developer “sent out a letter the week before Thanksgiving informing residents of an informational meeting at St. Joseph’s School (West Warwick), which took place the week after Thanksgiving just three business days prior to the Planning Commission presentation. Due to this convenient holiday timing, many residents missed the mailing and were unaware of 1) the project itself; 2) the informational meeting; and 3) the all-important city meeting until their neighbors went door-to-door alerting them.”

As solar development in the area is so new, Patten reasons the city is in a learning process while trying to do what is right.

“We don’t have the history to say what it’s going to be like in 25 years,” she said. She questions whether Southern might sell its farms and they could end up as part of a larger company.

Yet Patten is optimistic.

“The Planning Commission is so thoughtful. I’m so impressed. That’s heartening. If that stays in place, I want to believe we can do better.”

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Douglas Doe

Mr. Murray is engaging in word play when he declares "there would not be leveling of the site." The topography of the site will require substantial grading because of the severe changes in elevation on the site observed during the Planning Commission's visit. The elevation drops 100 feet west to east over a 1200 foot distance. Unfortunately how much grading will be needed and how it will be done will not be known until the DEM required Soil Erosion and Sediment Control plan is developed prior to the Preliminary Plan hearing. The Lippitt Ave project required grade changes of more than 20 feet in large areas because of all the ledge. Neither that requirement nor the blasting was discussed during the Planning Commission hearings. The Lippitt Ave site is now smooth as a pool table. The commission should visit the project to see what the Natick Ave site will look like. The city's "we had to destroy the land to save it" argument needs to end.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018