Solar legacy looms over proposed zoning amendment – Cranston Herald


A zoning amendment that supporters say would fix an “old quirk” in the city’s ordinance, but which critics fear could open the door to unintended projects down the line, has been sent back to the City Council’s Ordinance Committee for additional review in September.

The amendment, which was introduced by Mayor Allan Fung, would allow applicants seeking special permits through the city’s Zoning Board of Review to simultaneously apply for dimensional relief. Currently, applicants cannot seek both a special permit and dimensional relief – a restriction officials have said makes Cranston an outlier statewide.

“It’s something that cleans up kind of a strange scenario in our zoning code,” Planning Director Jason Pezzullo told members of the Ordinance Committee earlier this month.

The city’s Planning Department has endorsed the amendment, and it has received the unanimous support of the Planning Commission and a 5-1 favorable recommendation of the Ordinance Committee.

Some residents and officials, however, see shades of the city’s 2015 adoption of new solar regulations that resulted in the proliferation of commercial-scale projects in western Cranston – and led, earlier this year, to a new prohibition on such projects in A-80 residential zones.

Planning officials have acknowledged that the proposed amendment would clear the one way one project currently in the review pipeline – a ground-mounted, accessory solar energy system being planned at Cranston Country Club.

The solar system would be nowhere near the scope of other large-scale installations in the area, and it would be subject to the zoning ordinance’s current restrictions allowing minor accessory systems to produce no more than 125 percent of the site’s total electric consumption. Pezzullo on Monday said it involve a “tiny fraction” of the club’s total acreage and produced approximately 120 kilowatts.

As proposed, the club’s project would involve approval of a special permit for the solar system and a variance for a reduced setback from Burlingame Road.

Pezzullo also told council members one other potential project that would be affected by the change is “percolating through the pre-application process,” although he declined to discuss specifics other than to say it does not involve a solar energy system.

Two residents who were active in the effort to reform the city’s solar rules spoke during the public comment portion of Monday’s council meeting, urging council members not to approve the proposed zoning amendments.

“Approving this proposal would be a betrayal of all the work that’s been done to put the solar issue behind us … This ordinance is about bulldozing holes in the new solar ordinance,” Douglas Doe said.

Jessica Marino, a Democratic candidate for a citywide seat on the council, said: “Together, we afforded responsible protections for responsible renewable energy. We should not take a step back.”

Robert Murray, an attorney representing Cranston Country Club on the solar system application, said the procedural allowance the zoning amendment would create “doesn’t weaken any of the standards that an applicant has to meet when applying for a special use permit.”

Pezzullo also made the case for the amendment, which he said was identified last summer during a former employee’s review of the city’s zoning code as requiring an update. One was not sought sooner, he said, due to the high volume of other work and projects before his department.

“This is anything but a solar farm. This is for the use of the country club … There isn’t any hidden agenda on this ordinance,” he said, adding: “It’s an old quirk of our zoning code that needed to be fixed.”

Some members of the council, however, indicated they needed more information regarding the potential ramifications of the zoning change based on the city’s previous experience regarding solar regulations.

Citywide Councilman Steve Stycos said he fears creating a new risk to the preservation of Western Cranston’s rural character.

“If we keep chipping away at the rural areas and putting up industrial-scale things … that’s not going to be there anymore. And I think that’s unfair to all the residents of the city,” he said.

“We should be pro-business … That also being said, I don’t think this is something we necessarily have to rush,” Ward 4 Councilman Ed Brady said. He ultimately voted for the continuation but said he was leaning toward supporting the zoning amendment.

Ward 3 Councilman John Donegan said he saw the opposition of some residents who were involved in the solar debate as significant. “They see something here that we might not want to move forward on,” he said.

City Council President Michael Farina also cited the solar debate, saying: “I will not make that mistake again. I will listen to the people … To me, this is not a minor issue.”

Other council members urged approval of the zoning amendment.

“My feeling is that’s something that we need to do, at least give them the right,” Ward 6 Councilman Michael Favicchio said.

Citywide Councilman Ken Hopkins spoke of previous efforts to have businesses adopt solar energy as part of new and existing development. “We’ve encouraged this in past meetings … I think this is a good opportunity,” he said.

Ward 5 Chris Paplauskas said if the zoning amendment were approved, applicants would still require special permit and variance approval through the Zoning Board.

“Going before the Zoning Board isn’t an easy thing. There’s still checks and balances,” he said.

Ultimately, Pezzullo was asked to provide information on potential scenarios in each of the city’s six wards that could arise from a new allowance on simultaneous special permit and variance requests. The vote to send the matter back to the Ordinance Committee for additional consideration in September was 7-1, with Paplauskas opposed.

Elsewhere during Monday’s council meeting:

* Maria Wall, who retired as city clerk earlier this year, and Paul McAuley, who recently resigned as the council’s Ward 2 representative, were both recognized at the start of the meeting. * A decision was made to suspend the council’s rule regarding the time of the body’s monthly meeting for the remainder of the current term. The rules currently call for meetings to be held at 7 p.m., but the suspension will allow for meetings to instead begin at 6:30 p.m.

The change was based on a discussion initiated by Ward 1 Councilwoman Lammis Vargas, who said constituents had inquired about moving up the time of the monthly meeting to make public participation easier.

The possibility was previously raised of the council returning to City Hall’s Council Chambers as soon as this month, but Farina on Monday said based on discussions with the mayor and state officials, virtual Zoom meetings are likely to continue for several months. * The council approved an ordinance amendment prohibiting the use of synthetic herbicides on the city’s bike path. Robert Ferri, a Republican candidate for a citywide council seat, was credited for his advocacy on the issue.


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