Panel backs solar restrictions

Amendments would bar commercial-scale projects in A-80, S-1 zones

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The City Council is on course to approve new solar energy rules that would bar commercial-scale installations in a pair of key zoning districts – although the need for a corresponding amendment to Cranston’s Comprehensive Plan appears likely to delay a final vote.

During a special meeting on Nov. 12, the council’s Ordinance Committee on a series of 6-0 votes approved amended versions of the Planning Department’s recommended zoning ordinance amendment and a related change to the zoning schedule of uses.

Taking part in the votes were Citywide Councilman Ken Hopkins, Ward 1 Councilwoman Lammis Vargas, Ward 2 Councilman Paul McAuley, Ward 4 Councilman Ed Brady, Ward 6 Councilman Michael Favicchio and Council President Michael Farina.

The committee’s amendments would essentially result in the prohibition of commercial-scale solar projects in A-80 residential and S-1 open space zones. Farina proposed the amendments related to the A-80 zones, and then added the S-1 zones at the suggestion of Citywide Councilman Steve Stycos, who does not sit on the committee but participated in the debate.

Farina said he believes that “at this point, where we are today, we need to shut down A-80 from solar.”

“We’re righting a wrong that occurred back in 2015 when the initial ordinance was passed. I think if anybody knew the massive proliferation of solar was going to happen … I don’t think the council would have passed what they passed all those years ago,” he later added.

The planning proposals – which divide solar installations among three categories, including a new “major accessory” designation – initially sought to allow commercial solar in those zones through a required special use permit. Presently, commercial projects are allowed in those zones by right.

The commercial solar issue has drawn significant public scrutiny in the years since the city adopted its current solar ordinance in 2015. Criticism has focused on the spread of large-scale commercial projects in residential areas of Western Cranston – and what many residents and officials say have been the resulting negative consequences, including the clearing of trees, the changing of neighborhood character and other issues.

Dozens of residents were in attendance during the Nov. 12 meeting, and many thanked members of the council for moving to restrict further commercial solar development within the city.

“What a surprise,” Tom Wojick said, capturing a clear sense of relief among many of the residents who filled Council Chambers.

Doug Doe, who has been a consistent presence during discussions of the solar issue, became emotional while addressing the council.

“It’s been a long four years … It’s a very satisfying moment,” he said.

Drake Patten noted that it had been roughly a year since plans for a solar installation off Natick Avenue spurred a new push to change the city’s rules for such projects. She also took issue with the characterization of the solar debate as “contentious.”

“This is not contentious. This is democracy. This is engagement, and I have really valued this year with everyone, even if we disagree, because we have learned,” she said.

While the Ordinance Committee’s 6-0 vote indicates the new solar rules will easily pass the full nine-member council, a final vote will likely be delayed after officials concluded during the Nov. 12 debate that a corresponding amendment to the city’s Comprehensive Plan needs to be drafted and simultaneously approved. The city’s recent move to extend a moratorium on large-scale solar projects through Jan. 31, 2020, provides an apparently sufficient window of time for those additional steps to occur.

The committee’s Nov. 12 docket did include a Comprehensive Plan amendment – submitted by Stycos and sponsored by other council members – that would remove language that designates the placement of solar facilities as a form of “land banking.”

It was accompanied by a separate council-sponsored zoning amendment meant to serve as a safeguard in case the planning proposals – developed as part of the terms of the moratorium, which was instituted in February – experienced any unexpected delays or setbacks.

The Planning Commission previously considered both of the council-sponsored measures. However, only five commission members were present during the discussion and vote, resulting in a rare procedural outcome – a pair of 3-2 votes against recommending them to the council, which, in effect, meant they carried no formal recommendation.

The Ordinance Committee ultimately voted to send the Comprehensive Plan amendment back to the Planning Commission, with the intent being for its language to be updated to fully reflect the amended zoning ordinance and schedule of uses proposals.

Farina initially moved to continue consideration of the two council-sponsored measures until next month’s Ordinance Committee meeting to provide any additional backstop in the event of any unforeseen procedural issues.

But Stycos pushed for debate and a vote on the Comprehensive Plan amendment, saying he believes it is “part and parcel” of the broader action to amend the city’s solar rules. Otherwise, he said, the city risks creating a discrepancy that would open the door to a legal challenge.

“I think if I was a solar developer and I wanted to be contentious, I would argue the ordinance being put forward violates the spirit of the [Comprehensive Plan],” he said.

Farina then moved to send the measures back to the Planning Commission, saying he believes the council should receive a recommendation from the full commission before it acts on any Comprehensive Plan amendment or zoning change.

“I want to hear what they have to say. We appoint them to those positions for a reason,” he said.

Principal Planner Doug McLean subsequently advised council members that a Comprehensive Plan amendment would indeed be needed in tandem with the zoning ordinance change – but that the language in the council-sponsored proposal must be updated to more accurately reflect the intention of what the Ordinance Committee approved on Nov. 12.

It appears likely that the full council, at its Nov. 25 meeting, will continue the two solar proposals approved Nov. 12 until its regular meeting in December. The hope is that by that point, the Planning Commission will have recommended new language for the Comprehensive Plan amendment and that package of proposals can be acted upon at the same time.

Toward the end of the Nov. 12 meeting, members of the council thanked residents for their involvement in the process and the Planning Department for its work.

Stycos thanked Senior Planner Joshua Berry and Planning Director Jason Pezzullo for their efforts, including Berry’s presentation to the committee.

“I hope in the future we have more [presentations],” he said, calling them instructive for both council members and the public.

Hopkins said he and his colleagues have “learned so much” from residents during the solar debate. He specifically recognized Doe for his advocacy and contributions.

“You’ve taught me an awful lot about solar energy and conservation and taking care of your neighborhood,” he said.

Brady called the debate a “great bipartisan effort.” He said he “got chills” when Doe addressed the committee.

“Tonight, I actually felt it. When some of you got up and spoke and looked us in the eyes and thanked us, it’s honestly a reminder why we do this,” he said.

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