Solar farm deal would give land to city, neighbors

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What would be the city’s largest solar farm, generate needed revenue for an aging club and could give the city more than 94 acres of open space is being proposed for a track of land in Cowesett once considered for the development of single-family homes.

However, the solar array would also mean clearing at least 17 acres of woodlands and a sea of 34,000 solar panels near single-family homes not far from Royal Crest Apartments. The array would produce 13.5 megawatts. Warwick’s largest solar array to date on the former Leviton property next to the airport connector is a 6.2-megawatt solar farm on 36 acres.

What’s unique to this solar development compared to others that have sparked controversy in Cranston, West Greenwich, Exeter and other parts of the state is that the city would end up with 94 acres after the life of the solar array and the club is dissolved. In addition, single-family homeowners abutting the development would receive at no cost a parcel of land extending their property.

Under the proposal, which is in the discussion phase with neighboring property owners and the city Planning Department, the city would subdivide the property into lots of 44 acres for the solar farm and 49 acres for the club. The two parcels now zoned residential would become open space with a special exception for the solar farm to be built and operated by ISM Solar Development, LLC of East Providence. ISM would lease the land from the Little Rhody Beagle Club at 821 Cowesett Road. ISM would also make a payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) to be determined by the city, although an annual payment of $50,000 is mentioned in a one-page project outline recently provided to neighbors.

Rep. K. Joseph Shekarchi, who is representing ISM, said the proposed development has been under discussion for the past year.

“It’s a credit to the client [the Beagle Club] and the mayor who wanted to make sure that the city ended up with this very desirable land at no cost to the city,” he said. Shekarchi said that Ward 8 Councilman Anthony Sinapi has been “very vocal to make sure neighbors have a buffer lot.”

The Beagle Club is one of the few remaining large undeveloped tracts in Cowesett. Faced with declining membership, the club has long sought a way to generate revenue while maintaining its clubhouse and activity that involves releasing rabbits along runs that are defined by hedges and bushes. The beagles are trained to track the rabbits, not kill them. According to a narrative provided the city by DiPrete Engineering on behalf of ISM, Beagle Club members are in their 60s to 80s and the club has been closed to new membership permanently

“It is unlikely that the Beagle Club will remain active for the length of the solar use [20 to 35 years],” reads the narrative.

Attorney Robert Flaherty, who is representing the Beagle Club, said the club consists of 30 to 40 members with a core group of 20 who are active.

Flaherty estimated the land would sell between $2 million and $4 million if developed for single-family homes or apartments like those at Royal Crest. But, he adds, that’s not their interest.

“The guys don’t want the money, they want to maintain the club…I can’t believe how profoundly generous these people are,” he said.

In a letter inviting neighbors to a meeting April 22 at 6:30 p.m. at the club, club vice president Tony Roderick writes the agreement with ISM “will allow our club to continue to operate, give you peace of mind there will be no residential development in your backyard, and provide safe, quiet and clean solar energy to our community.”

Roderick goes on to say when it comes time for the club to close, “we are delighted to be leaving a legacy of land conservation with open space to be enjoyed by the community for generations to come.”

Despite assurances that the development won’t result in an increase of traffic, light up the night sky and put added pressure on city services including schools, water, sewers, police and public works, neighbors are wary of the visual impact of the array, its impact on wildlife, loss of trees and possible health implications.

“I’m all for renewable energy,” says Gary Gliottone, who is one of five property owners whose homes abuts the wooded section of the club property that would be cleared of trees. He feels the solar panels would be too close to residents, noting that “there are no studies on the [health] effects [of solar panels] down the road.”

In a meeting yesterday, Gregory Lucini, president and CEO of ISM Solar, said the Beagle Club is prepared to “give” a 100-foot wide strip of property to each of the five homeowners, which in some cases would virtually double their land. From that point, there would be a 20-foot buffer to the fence plus another 20 feet from inside the fenced area to the first panel. The land gift, he said, would “mitigate” any loss in property value resulting from the development, “if not increase property values.”

Lucini, who has been in the business of building solar arrays for the last six years and has 12 projects in the pipeline, called this project unique.

“You have the short-term use followed by the long-term preservation, and it’s all happening at no cost to the taxpayer,” he said.

Dr. Sirai Amanullah, who lives across the street from the Gliottones, feels the city should answer to its residents and questions how it can maintain a neutral position when it would get land as open space and payments from the deal.

“We want to make sure state [and city] representatives listen to us, that this is not under the table,” he said.

Further, he said, that construction of more homes in the area have never been an issue and he takes offense to what he considers scare tactics of added traffic, noise and activity if housing was developed.

“Are we doing something which affects the rights of people next to the land,” he asks.

Lucini said he is seeking to meet with the five directly impacted property owners on Blue Ridge Road and Alicia Circle prior to the April 26 meeting to review the proposal.

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