Richmond approves 23-acre solar installation with nearly 18,000 panels

Richmond approves 23-acre solar installation with nearly 18,000 panels

The Westerly Sun

RICHMOND — The Richmond Planning Board has granted approval to WED Kingstown Solar 1 LLC and property owners John and Cindy Duncan to construct one of the largest solar energy installations in southern Rhode Island.

The development plan review and subsequent approval took place at the April 25 Planning Board meeting. The installation, which covers approximately 23 acres at Harvest Acres Farm at 421 Kingstown Road, will have a total of 17,788 fixed panels. It will be divided into two sections to accommodate a wetland that divides the property. The two installations, which will generate 1.5 megawatts and 3 megawatts, respectively, will cover 8.5 and 14.4 acres.

“Because there’s a large, wooded swamp that basically bifurcates the property, it’s two separate solar installations, one on the eastern side, one on the western side,” Town Planner Juliana Berry said. “Physically on the ground it was separated, and National Grid required there to be two separate connections. Obviously, they weren’t going to try and run wires over the swamp to connect the two.”

One installation, with 5,732 solar panels, will be accessed from an extended driveway next to the farm store. On the eastern side of the property, the second installation, with 12,056 panels, will be behind an existing cellphone tower that already has an access road. That road will be extended.

Cindy Duncan, best known in the community for the annual Rainbow Race and other charitable endeavors, did not disclose the details of the financial agreement with WED Kingstown Solar, but she said she and her husband felt they had found an environmentally friendly way to provide financial security for their two children.

“John and I, God forbid anything ever happens to us, I want to have them taken care of,” she said. “That was the main reason why we did it, and also, it’s environmentally sound and it’s a wonderful thing. If we can have this big project go, it will be an added bonus to everything that’s here...With farming, I don’t have a retirement. We don’t have any of that.”

Richmond passed a solar energy ordinance in 2013, and added an amendment in 2016 that applies to solar energy installations as accessory uses on farms.

“We have an ordinance related to solar and it goes through the development plan review process,” Berry said. “We also added last year into our accessory uses section of the zoning ordinance, the ability for farms that meet certain criteria in all zones to have solar installations on their property.”

Those conditions include setbacks, underground connection and distribution lines, a 6-foot perimeter fence and dark sky-compliant lighting. Solar energy installations are permitted as accessory uses on farms of 10 or more contiguous acres.

The solar panels on the Duncan farm will be no higher than 12 feet, but Berry noted that the Planning Board had expressed concerns about the visibility of the panels from heavily traveled Kingstown Road (Route 138).

“With natural elevation changes and distance from the road, the applicant did assert that you might be able to catch a glimpse of them in winter when all the leaves are off the trees, but other than that, it wouldn’t be too visible,” Berry said. “I also asked if there would be any interference with the airport, because the airport is an adjacent use, and the answer was no.”

In its submission to the April 25 Planning Board hearing, the Richmond Conservation Commission questioned the speed with which the large project had been approved and argued that its construction would come with a cost: 20 acres of forest will be removed to accommodate the panels.

“Why is a wetland assessment report not included in the submission?” the commission asked. “Have experienced field ecologists verified that the on-site depressions are not serving as vernal pools, or are not characterized by hydrophytes [aquatic vegetation], seasonal ponding, and/or underlain by hydric soils?” That soil is formed during ponding or flooding. “What is the acreage of forest that would be lost by the project, and has the applicant considered measures to avoid or lessen loss of forest resources? The forest cover that would be affected should also be characterized relative to the species present and the range in and mean diameter at breast height. What would be the expected loss of carbon credits associated with the loss of the forest, in comparison to the energy generated by the solar farm?”

James Turek, who chairs the Conservation Commission, said, “I’m totally in support of solar panels, but we start taking down beautiful forest to put up solar panels, it’s nutty.”

Turek also questioned the impact the project might have on the rural character of the town.

“Here we have the aesthetic values of, essentially, a rural town. We’re going to have these unsightly things right along that road. The engineer for the applicant said there will be no viewscape showing those things and I’m saying, ‘There’s going to be 17,000 of them. Of course they’re going to be seen.’”

The developer did not return a call seeking comment.

Berry said she believed the town had done what it could to regulate solar development, and she added that the project is a permitted use in the zone.

“I think the Town of Richmond has done a pretty good balancing act of looking at solar as a passive, environmentally friendly use to the land,” she said. “It doesn’t require town services, really, certainly has no effect on our schools in any fashion... The other important aspect to that is where solar is currently allowed, and that is in zones where permitted uses are a lot more impactful to the town and to the land... They are technically zoned Light Industrial, and there’s a lot more impactful uses allowed in a Light Industrial zone than passive solar. There’s nothing stopping people going and taking out trees on their property.”

The Harvest Acres project still requires Rhode Island Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permits, and erosion permits, from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. Duncan said she hoped construction could begin “as soon as possible.”



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