What should the city’s rules governing large, commercial-scale solar projects look like?
Some favor a full repeal of the existing regulatory framework, which has been in place since 2015, and the creation of new rules that more effectively protect wooded and residential areas. Others favor the continued allowance of large solar installations as a means of limiting new residential development and combating climate change.
Varying views of the subject were heard Monday during a Planning Commission workshop held at the William Hall Library.
“We want to encourage dialogue. We want to learn from one another,” commission Chairman Michael Smith said at the outset of the gathering.
The workshop was designed as an opportunity to hear from the public as a review of Cranston’s solar rules is conducted. The review comes following the city’s February enactment of a nine-month moratorium on consideration of commercial projects.
Concerns expressed by residents were wide ranging, and echoed those raised by members of the public and officials over the last three-plus years regarding the proliferation of commercial solar projects in residential areas, particularly A-80 zones in Western Cranston.
Resident Richard Muto spoke of the environmental impact of large solar developments.
“Look for the opportunities not to destroy habitat,” he told the commission.
Douglas Doe, who has been a vocal critic of commercial solar projects, presented a series of pictures showing how the construction of the approved solar projects has changed the landscape of Western Cranston.
“I’ve heard that these projects are not permanent. Well, the impact on the neighborhood, and the impact on the conservation land up there, is permanent. The impact on the wetlands … is permanent. The destruction of wildlife habitat is permanent. The destruction of open space is permanent,” he said.
Doe urged officials to repeal the existing solar ordinance and create new rules that “respects the people of Western Cranston and respects and protects the conservation values in the Comprehensive Plan.”
“Take the pressure off, and then do it right,” he said, drawing applause from the audience.
Dana Holmgren asked officials to “make sure that the voices of Cranston residents continue to be incorporated” in the solar ordinance review – and for the moratorium to be extended if required.
“If there needs to be more time to come up with the right product, with the right plan … I hope the city will take more time,” she said.
Warwick resident Michael Zarum also drew cheers when he said solar energy developments need to be located “in the right place.”
“I think things are on the right track. I’m glad to see there’s a moratorium in place, I think that’s well deserved,” he said. “But what I see here for those who had bought residential property where it’s zoned residential, they buy that house lot with the expectation that it’s going to remain residential and characteristic. And then all of a sudden, they’re being told someone can build a power plant next to their home.”
Vaughn Lane resident Jessica Salter spoke of the concern many Western Cranston residents have regarding the impact of commercial solar facilities on their property values.
“Most of us have our single biggest investment in our life in our homes,” she said.
Drake Patten, a Natick Avenue resident and owner of the agricultural business Cluck!, rejected the argument that commercial solar projects are a means of protecting land.
“Twenty-five to 30 years of land being taken out of use does not guarantee its future … Please don’t call it land banking,” she said.
While the audience was largely in favor of greater solar restrictions, some said the city should be more supportive of large, commercial installations.
“We can’t say we’re for solar, so long as you don't build it next to me. There needs to be a balance ... If we do the green-power talk, we need to do the green-power walk,” said Robert Murray, a Cranston resident and the attorney for Southern Sky Renewable Energy RI LLC.
Mark Motte spoke of how common renewable energy production has become in Western Europe, and said encouraging its development – even in close proximity to residences – is imperative given the effects of climate change.
“We contaminate the water, the soil and the air as a matter of course in our day-to-day lives … We need to look, I think, at a bit more of a meta scale,” he said.
In addition to A-80 residential zones, the city’s current solar rules allow large-scale, commercial projects as a by-right use in S-1 open space zones and M-1 and M-2 industrial zones.
To date, six large, commercial solar projects have received approval in Cranston – Hope Farms, Gold Meadow Farms, two projects on Seven Mile Road, Natick Avenue and Pontiac Avenue.
A seventh, located off Vaughn Lane, did not receive master plan approval prior to the enactment of the moratorium. The developers of that project have challenged the moratorium in court.
According to information presented by Senior Planner Joshua Berry, the six approved projects cover a combined total of 315.6 acres, of which 152.42 will host the actual solar equipment. The total energy output of the six projects will be 45.2 megawatts.
A timeline provided by Berry indicates that planning staff will present a first draft of a revised solar ordinance to the Planning Commission in June. Comments and discussion on the draft will be heard during the commission’s July meeting, and a final draft will be submitted for consideration and comment in August.
An approved ordinance would then go before the City Council for review and approval. The moratorium expires in October.
Berry said planning staff have been “working very hard” on the matter.
During a question-and-answer session held before the dedicated public comment on Monday, concerns were raised over enforcement of mandated conditions and rules at solar development sites. Berry said that will be a significant focus of planning staff during the review process.
“Right now, why we’re all here today is because our ordinance doesn’t have the firm standards that we want, and fencing is the perfect example of that … That’s why we’re here today, to make sure that we get everything that we want in terms of performance standards codified,” he said.
Several members of the audience also urged the city to take steps to incentivize the siting of commercial solar projects areas that are not residential or green space. Berry said the process will focus on identifying those “preferred sites” – such as rooftops and industrial properties – and creating incentives.
“The main issue, the elephant in the room, is how do we protect our neighborhoods?” he said.
Berry additionally said renewable energy production goals laid out by Gov. Gina Raimondo can be incorporated into the city’s review and used as a “measuring stick.”
“I think the city would at least want to evaluate proportionately, what would our fair share be?” he said
City Council President Michael Farina was among several members of the council in attendance for the workshop.
“We know the zoning ordinance is bad … The goal here tonight is to solicit feedback to figure out how to change that … to still allow for renewable energy, but in the right way,” he said.