By JOHN HOWELL
When solar farms were first proposed for large tracts of Western Cranston, the projects were embraced for their green energy and the fact that land wouldn’t be developed for housing, resulting in more traffic and increased city services.
But with the clear cutting of woods and the loss of fields, solar farms lost their glow and gained the scorn of some of the strongest proponents of green energy.
So far, that tug and pull over solar developments hasn’t become an issue in Warwick, although a proposed development at the Little Rhody Beagle Club has raised concerns of neighbors. That wasn’t the case of the solar array erected on land that was once part of the Leviton Manufacturing operation, deemed a brownfield because of contaminants dumped there. A smaller array off West Shore Road, north of the Apponaug underpass and adjacent to Amtrak borders several residential properties, remains a source of complaint, according to Mayor Frank Picozzi. One resident is looking for additional shrubbery to screen the panels.
By and large, solar installations in Warwick have been on privately owned residential properties, roof top panels that feed the building they are mounted on and reverse the electric meter when the solar power exceeds consumption from the grid. Installation of the panels requires a city building permit, but does not require Planning Board or City Council approval.
That wouldn’t change under an ordinance that the Planning Board has approved and the City Council will considering adopting at its meeting Monday.
“It creates a framework that sets the ground rules,” says Lucas Murray, principal planner for the city and architect of the ordinance that draws upon ordinances in other communities and introduces elements designed to promote solar in some zones.
Solar arrays would be permitted by right, meaning they would not require Planning Board or council approval in general industrial and light industrial zones.
The arrays – which could be canopies over parking lots or a backyard array in addition to roof panels, for example – would be considered under what Murray calls an “overlay process.” In this case, the project would require master plan approval from the Planning Board followed by council approval and final Planning Board approval.
Murray is keen on the overlay district, since those developments would require approval from the city’s elected officials who are answerable to their constituents.
This may sound tedious, but Murray views the process as streamlined and one that would encourage developers to look at areas for projects instead of woodlands and open space. Projects in wooded lands and open space would require the greatest scrutiny, with the council weighing whether the project is a “direct benefit” to the city. That benefit could be a 35-year (the projected life of a solar development) trade-off with the landowner for the land that would become city property with the removal of the panels.
Murray views implementation of an overlay district as a privilege, not a right, giving the city much more ability to set standards.
Ward 8 Councilman Anthony Sinapi commended Murray on the ordinance, saying it provides the planning board with flexibility and allows the city to consider projects on a case-by-case basis.
The ordinance is not without critics, with Jane Austin, former chair of the Warwick School Committee, being its most vocal.
In a June 12 letter to Murray and Ward 8 Councilman Anthony Sinapi she writes, “A solar ordinance provides the City with an opportunity to set a clear strategic vision for solar development in Warwick. While the Planning Board draft includes a set of robust project level performance standards, the overall approach is deeply flawed.”
Her focus is primarily on the overlay district and the benefit trees have to the environment.
She argues a citywide overlay district “opens all residentially zoned land and open space to potential commercial scale solar installations.” She further claims the district and the proposed approval process “are inconsistent with City ordinances and state law” and that its use would be a piecemeal approach with “no guidance for considering cumulative impacts or the strategic development of solar in the city overall.”
Austin calls the performance standards, as drafted, “too permissive in residential areas and too restrictive in commercial and industrial areas.”
She says the city “needs a more strategic approach.”
“Optimizing is not the same as maximizing the amount of solar, given the significant tradeoffs with associated deforestation and the destruction of the existing tree canopy. The City can avoid those tradeoffs by limiting major solar development to its large areas of existing commercial and industrial zoned land and crafting clear and appropriate residential regulations for accessory solar,” she writes.
She goes on to observe that solar energy is an extremely land intensive use – 10 times that of traditional energy sources.
“Tress and Forests are the only things that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Protecting existing intact forest and allowing them to grow to their ecological potential is critical to any successful effort to stave off the worst impacts of climate change,” she writes.
Ward 9 Councilman Vincent Gebhart who represents Cowesett with some large tracts of wooded lands commended the Planning Department for taking a proactive approach to solar developments. He said from his initial reading of the ordinance it “lacked specificity” on deforestation mitigation.
As for the Little Rhody Beagle Club proposal, which is in Ward 8, he said, “building homes back there would be far more impactful.”
The Beagle Club proposal would develop a 13.5-megawatt solar array of 34,000 panels on 36 acres of the 94-acre site. The remaining land would be left as open space, and the city would own the full 94 acres at the end of the solar farm’s life. The plan calls for the clearing of 17 acres of woodlands.
Mayor Picozzi is in agreement the city needs an ordinance spelling out procedures and standards for solar developments.
As for the Little Rhody Beagle Club, he said, “I don’t want to see them put a few hundred houses up there. Solar farms are perishable. Once you build houses, they are there forever.”