UPDATED: The neighbors — through their lawyer and their own experts — made a persuasive argument. And for now, it seems a proposal for five new solar farms in Johnston has been defeated.
UPDATED: The neighbors — through their lawyer and their own experts — made a persuasive argument. And for now, it seems a proposal for five new solar farms in has been defeated in Johnston.
On Thursday, April 28, hundreds of Johnston residents gathered at the Johnston Senior Center to participate in a public hearing over Cranston-based Green Development’s proposal to build five solar fields on more than 324 acres of mostly wooded land in a residential zone of the town’s western end.
By early Friday morning, the meeting was still in session. Approximately 8 hours after the opening gavel, the meeting finally concluded.
“I think all the residents and homeowners who live near these five proposed solar panel projects are very relieved and happy with the results and are especially grateful to board members Richard Lobello and Richard Fascia for opposing all of the applications,” said Winsor Avenue homeowner Wayne J. Forrest. “I think they showed how important it is to preserve the quality of life in Johnston, not only in these rural neighborhoods, but across the whole town.”
The proposal pitted the local sustainable energy company versus homeowners in several Johnston neighborhoods. Green Development struck a deal with private landowners and had offered to donate three of the parcels to the Johnston Land Trust, and lease the land back from the town to construct and maintain the solar fields for decades, before decommissioning the arrays and reverting the land back to Land Trust stewardship.
“We are certainly disappointed in the outcome of the vote of the zoning board, as Green made a conscious effort to ensure the design of the projects satisfied all of the town’s zoning and subdivision regulations, while complying with the town’s comprehensive plan,” said Bill Fischer, President of True North Communications and spokesperson for Green Development, LLC. “Green spent a significant amount of resources, energy and time to assemble a well-versed team of experts — who did a tremendous job at the hearing — giving zoning board members the evidence they needed to approve the project. Unfortunately, the town lost the opportunity to protect hundreds of acres of land for generations to enjoy as public space. Not to mention, the financial benefits the proposal was providing the town for the next 25 years.”
Neighbors worried about a reduction in home values and the destruction of the natural habitat surrounding residential neighborhoods. The fields were proposed for a residentially zoned land, but required special use permits from the Johnston Solar Board to advance the project.
The Johnston Planning Board had previously granted approval to Green Development’s master plans for the five new solar fields. Thursday’s Zoning Board public hearing had been continued from the committee’s monthly March meeting because residents opposing the project hired legal counsel to fight the proposal.
“Attorney Matt Landry put on his case with two experts,” said one of those witnesses, land use expert Sam Shamoon. “His main point was that the solar farm is not a public utility and therefore could not be considered for a special use permit.”
Matthew J. Landry, of the Providence law firm Blish & Cavanagh LLP, has been on the case for about a month, and was hired by a group of concerned abutters.
Shamoon testified that solar farms are not consistent with the town’s Comprehensive Plan and therefore should be denied. Shamoon also noted that the applicant would clear cut approximately “40 percent of existing trees and that would have negative impact on neighboring residents.”
While the meeting room was packed with residents, lawyers, experts and board members, numerous calls to end the meeting were defeated.
“The zoning board denied attempts to continue the hearing,” Shamoon said early Friday morning. “Even though the time was almost midnight the board keep me hearing going no matter how late it goes.”
Of the 324.86 acres proposed for solar development, approximately 133.15 acres would have been surrounded by fencing, with solar panels occupying around 41 percent of the acreage. A substantial area would have been cleared of trees, and some topography altered.
“To be clear, no one at the meeting was opposed to solar energy, but it should be located on commercial or industrial land or on rooftops,” Forrest said. “I think the hope now is that town officials will follow this path going forward, not overdevelop every piece of available land, and not lessen the value of these neighborhoods and properties that residents have worked so hard for.”
Two weeks ago, District 5 Town Councilman Robert Civetti asked solicitor William J. Conley Jr. draw up a solar development moratorium. The west-end resident and council representative has been vocal regarding his opposition to the project’s pitched location, mixed within residential neighborhoods.
“The residents worked diligently as a team to fight this proposal and at the end of the day, I believe that the members of the Zoning Board made the correct decision,” Civetti said this week. “In my opinion, the matter never should have even made its way to the Zoning Board since it was not in compliance with the Town’s comprehensive plan nor was it allowed under the Town’s zoning ordinance.”
Conley insisted the moratorium would not affect the pending Green Development proposal, since it had already cleared the all-important first Planning Board master plan approval hurdle last month.
Civetti was willing to let the courts decide the issue. The moratorium may still face a vote of Town Council. Civetti and others have also called for updates to the town’s aging Comprehensive Plan, which says little about solar development.
“I have full faith in the zoning board for making their decision based on the evidence and testimony in front of them,” said Johnston Town Council Vice-President and mayoral candidate Joe Polisena Jr. “As I said from the beginning, whether for solar or for housing, everyone would have an opportunity to be heard — that’s democracy in action. The end result is a win for the housing advocates.”
Polisena Jr. and his father, current mayor Joseph M. Polisena, have both noted that the land will likely be developed no matter the town’s decisions regarding the solar farms. The Polisenas argue that solar fields would be far less taxing of town resources than new housing developments, for example.
“Our plan would have ensured these properties never became housing developments and we worked in a spirit of cooperation with the Land Trust and the town to ensure these acres would be protected and accessible to the public, on day one,” Fischer said. “Anyone who believes this area is currently designated as open space is misinformed and quite frankly anyone utilizing the land for recreational purposes is trespassing on private property. We continue to believe in the merits of the project and although we are disappointed in the outcome, we are not dissuaded from evaluating our options moving forward.”
Neighbors are calling for a third option beyond solar and housing — land preservation. The problem is, the land in question is under private ownership, and can be developed according to Johnston’s planning and zoning laws. If the owners want to develop, the western end could become more densely populated. Many Rollingwood Avenue and Winsor Avenue residents have insisted they’d rather have families living next door rather than industrial solar panels.
“Real estate expert James Houle testified that in his opinion the project would result in a diminution of property values,” Shamoon said, recounting the meeting’s final hours. “During the public comment period numerous residents stated that the project would negatively impact their enjoyment of their property they implored the board to turn down the petition.”
Ultimately, after almost eight hours, the Zoning Board was split.
“When came time to vote one member moved to approve,” Shamoon said. “Three voted to approve and two said no. The motion failed because they needed four to approve.”
The meeting was adjourned after 2 a.m.
“What a night, huh?” Forrest said Friday morning after getting some sleep.
Project abutter Chris Dibble and his wife Bonnie pooled resources with several neighbors to hire Landry to help fight the solar proposal. One of the fields was proposed for construction just 200 feet from their property line, with an access road a mere 50 feet from their house.
“It is reassuring that the board recognized that these projects are neither permitted nor appropriate for the areas proposed,” Dibble said after the meeting. “Special Use Permits have standards that need to be met. These standards include compatibility with surrounding areas and no degradation of neighbors’ enjoyment of their property. These standards were not met, so it was good that the board recognized this fact.”
Zoning Board Vice-Chairman Anthony Pilozzi voted to approve the solar fields.
“We have to follow the law and the statute permits solar farms,” he insisted during an interview Monday evening. “The expert testimony was overwhelming on both sides.”
The five proposed solar projects included — a 1.0 Megawatt solar field, called, GD Johnston Elmgrove II, at 25 Elmgrove Ave. (AP 51 Lot 4, zoned R40); GD Johnston Harilla I, a 2.25 MW solar field at 28 Harilla Lane (AP 51 Lots 9 & 11, zoned R40); GD Johnston Winsor I, a 4.0 MW solar field at 46 Winsor Ave. (AP 60 Lot 4, zoned R40); GD Johnston Winsor II, a proposed 8.0 MW solar field at 86 Winsor Ave. (AP 60 Lots 2, 20, 86, zoned R20 & R40); and GD Johnston Winsor III, a proposed 24.0 MW solar field at 112 Winsor Ave. (AP 59 Lot 15, zoned R40).
“The legal arguments are compelling — the fact that this use is not actually permitted under the town’s existing regulations,” Dibble explained. “However, I think that the overwhelming show of opposition from the residents was the most powerful thing presented to the board. It was very clear that the only people in the room in favor of the projects were the Green Development representatives. No residents got up to speak in favor of the projects.”
Civetti noted the absence of most of the town’s elected officials throughout the proceedings examining the solar farm proposal.
“Since this was such a big proposal and something that could impact the entire Town I thought that we would have seen and heard more from our elected officials since we are in office to represent the people of this Town,” Civetti said Tuesday.
Will Green Development take their case to court and challenge the Zoning Board decision with litigation?
“All of our options are being evaluated,” Fischer said.
“If they appeal it, let a judge decide,” Pilozzi said.
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