Natick Avenue poles request pushed back The City Council's Public Works Committee last week voted to delay any action on a request for new utility poles on Natick Avenue as part of a planned commercial-scale solar installation until June. Utility pole
The City Council’s Public Works Committee last week voted to delay any action on a request for new utility poles on Natick Avenue as part of a planned commercial-scale solar installation until June.
Utility pole placement votes are often formalities for the council, but the joint request from National Grid and Verizon for the nine new fixtures has become the latest front in a long-running debate over Revity Energy’s planned 8.1-megawatt solar development on Natick Avenue.
The project received master plan approval in 2019, the last to cross that threshold before changes to the city’s solar ordinances aimed at curbing commercial-scale projects in Western Cranston. It is now before the Planning Commission for preliminary plan approval, with those proceedings set to resume in April.
Abutters to the site have also filed suit over the project’s master plan approval, and that litigation remains pending in Superior Court.
The Public Works Committee initially approved the Natick Avenue poles request during its regular meeting in February. Based on public access concerns related to Zoom, however, the council subsequently nullified that action and other business that went before multiple committees on the same night, with the items reintroduced and sent back to the committee level for new consideration.
During last week’s Public Works session, several members of the community urged the committee to deny or delay the Natick Avenue poles request. They said the poles being requested will have a significant aesthetic effect on the area – citing the experience of neighbors to other large solar developments – and called for more details from National Grid regarding what is planned.
“There’s no need to vote for this tonight,” Doug Doe said. “There’s no rush, there’s no hurry.”
Added resident Jess Salter: “It’s not only unnecessary, it’s irresponsible at this point.”
“The worry is, we don’t know enough. And we are asking to know more,” Drake Patten said, adding: “It’s not just about our street … It’s about all of our neighbors.”
Public Works Director Ken Mason told the committee the nine poles being requested are guide poles, which do not carry wires but provide support for larger poles set to be installed across the roadway. He also said existing pole sites do not typically require council approval for replacement or upgrades.
Attorney Robert Murray, who represents Revity, pushed back against what he described as “a lot of misinformation out there.” He called the poles request “routine,” and also noted that what was being presented did not include replacement poles or the Natick Avenue project’s connection to the grid.
“This is not a referendum on the solar project before this committee tonight,” he said.
Some residents of the Natick Avenue area have pushed officials and the developer to consider alternate routes for the grid connection and related poles.
In response to a question from Citywide Councilwoman Nicole Renzulli, Marisa Albanese, a community manager for National Grid who oversees Cranston, said the utility is obligated to design its pole plans in the safest and lowest cost way possible – and that what was presented incorporated those factors.
“We don’t believe there’s another way to serve this project.,” she said.
Due to the Natick Avenue poles comment and discussion, the Public Works Committee’s meeting ran up against the planned start time of the Ordinance Committee’s meeting.
Council President Chris Paplauskas initially recommended continuing consideration of the Natick Avenue poles for one month to allow for the next meeting to proceed.
After discussion and debate – including concerns over whether 30 days would be enough to address the issues raised by residents – the committee voted 5-1 in favor of the three-month continuance. Support was also voiced for holding a site visit.
Paplauskas and Renzulli joined committee chairman and Citywide Councilman Robert Ferri, Ward 1 Councilwoman Lammis Vargas and Ward 4 Councilman Ed Brady in the majority. Ward 6 Councilman Matthew Reilly was the sole dissenter. Citywide Councilwoman Jessica Marino, who is a party to the litigation over the solar project, recused herself from any discussion and vote regarding the poles.
A second proposal for a medical marijuana dispensary in Cranston has received a special use permit.
New Leaf Compassion Center’s request to establish a dispensary at 24 Stafford Court received the unanimously approval of the Zoning Board of Review on March 10. The board in December granted a special use permit to the proposed The Winding Road Compassion Center at 100 Glen Road.
Both proposals are now subject to selection by the state Department of Business Regulation for new compassion center licenses being distributed through a lottery.
The state is issuing one license for each of six geographic zones across Rhode Island. Obtaining the special permit qualifies each of the Cranston proposals to participate in the lottery.
Attorney Thomas Mirza, representing New Leaf, said the compassion center would occupy roughly 2,500 to 3,000 square feet of an existing 28,000-square-foot building. The site is currently used by New Leaf’s backers for a medical marijuana cultivation operation, he said, and plans are being made to relocate that side of the business if the compassion center wins a license and state regulations require the two operations to be separated.
Mirza estimated the compassion center would employ 10 to 15 people and draw between 40 and 60 vehicles an hour at peak times. He said a former Rhode Island State Police lieutenant has been employed to oversee the facility’s security, which would include cameras and a sealed vault for product.
Mirza said Dr. James Crowely, a professor emeritus as Brown University’s School of Medicine, serves on the compassion center’s medical advisory board. He also said New Leaf has an agreement in place to bring in pharmacy interns from the University of Rhode Island.
“The medical aspect of this … is very important to us,” he said.
In a nod to the state’s push toward legalization of recreational marijuana, Mirza also noted that New Leaf could potentially become eligible for a recreational sales license. He suggested that could produce between $200,000 and $400,000 in annual revenue for the city based on a proposed 3 percent local tax included in the state Senate’s legalization bill.
Concerns over public access continue to affect virtual proceedings for city government.
The relative length of the Public Works Committee’s March 11 meeting – which had only four items on its agenda, including two other pole requests, and been scheduled to run one hour after its 6 p.m. start – led City Council members to reschedule the planned Ordinance Committee meeting on the same night.
The Ordinance panel convened roughly 15 minutes after its scheduled 7 p.m. start time. But some members said they received communications from residents who were unable to join or watch the Zoom call through the posted link.
It was unclear how many people were experiencing issues and whether they were simply being directed to the virtual “waiting room” or running into a more serious problem. Ultimately, the committee opted to continue its full agenda until March 18.
Virtual meeting access concerns have led to delays or reconsideration of business for the Planning Commission and multiple council committees in recent weeks.
The limitations of the city’s Zoom account also forced a quick end last week to a special joint meeting of the council and School Committee to allow for the Zoning Board of Review to convene.
-- Daniel Kittredge