HOPE VALLEY — After canceling the Oct. 15 hearing on the Brushy Brook solar energy project because the crowd exceeded the capacity of the Town Hall, the Town Council again postponed the rescheduled hearing on Monday because the attorney representing the developer, Southern Sky Renewable Energy LLC, was out of town and unable to attend.
It was unwelcome news for the 97 residents who had come to the Hope Valley Elementary School auditorium expecting to hear the council’s decision on the project.
“All these residents who changed their schedules to be here last Monday, and now a second Monday that has to be postponed because the attorney is out of the country,” resident Joseph Moreau said. “Did the attorney know last week that he was going to be out of the country? Most law firms have more than one attorney available.”
Southern Sky is requesting zoning and comprehensive plan amendments for the project, which would be the largest in Rhode Island. The solar panels would occupy approximately half of a 358-acre wooded parcel at 130 Dye Hill Road, which is adjacent to the state-owned Arcadia Management Area. The 58-megawatt array would require the clearing of 175 acres with about 35,000 trees.
Even after the postponement was announced, most people remained in their seats.
Eric Bibler, spokesman for the recently formed Hopkinton Citizens for Responsible Planning, presented the council with a petition signed by 370 residents who oppose changing residentially zoned properties to commercial in order to accommodate solar projects.
“We’ve been circulating a petition in opposition to the current manner of doing business by the town and echoing the sentiments that have been expressed repeatedly by the Planning Board and some members of Town Council that the Town Council has been engaged in spot zoning,” he said.
Bibler also questioned the council’s assertion that residential properties that have been rezoned commercial would automatically revert to residential when solar facilities are decommissioned.
“If you insert a provision that says 30 years from now something’s going to automatically revert to the original zoning, you can’t do it, because it’s a violation of state law,” he said. “State law says that you have to notice a zoning change and you have to go through this whole procedure.”
Members of the council considered an amendment that makes several changes to the town’s original solar ordinance.
“I know that when we first put this ordinance together we had the best of intentions, and obviously once it was implemented, then we realized there were some issues with it,” Council President Frank Landolfi said.
Council members went through the 10-page document and, with assistance from Planning Board Chairman Alfred DiOrio, made several changes.
There was considerable discussion of how much of a property could be covered by solar panels; the potential for contaminant leakage at the site; and the concept of reforestation after the array is decommissioned.
Despite promises from solar developers to reforest decommissioned solar installations, DiOrio emphatically questioned the notion that the land would revert to its natural, wooded state.
“When these projects are done, they’re going to become subdivisions, because — think about it — all the trees are gone,” he said. “This is a developer’s dream, so unless you’re going to mandate reforestation, my opinion is these are going to be developable lots. This is what the town is zoned for. This is the logical extension of the use of property in our town.”
Doug Harris, deputy historic preservation officer of the Narragansett Indian Tribe, requested that the revised ordinance include a requirement for cultural surveys of properties proposed for solar development, such as the Brushy Brook property.
“As I recall, you were informed by the developer that there was only one site and that they had walked the 358 acres and there was nothing else,” he said. “Well, they don’t have the expertise to make that determination and what we would request is that there would be a ceremonial stone landscape and historic preservation survey where the tribes can put in place a survey team who will examine those 358 acres and establish that there is nothing of significance.”
The Brushy Brook hearing, and the expected council decision will take place on Oct. 29.