HOPKINTON — Residents who oppose the Town Council’s approach to approving zoning amendments for solar energy projects filled the council chambers Monday for a workshop on solar-facility siting.
Organized by the Rhode Island Office of Energy Resources, the outreach meeting was one of a series taking place across the state. Christopher Kearns, chief of program development at the Rhode Island Office of Energy Resources and Nancy Hess, supervising planner at the Rhode Island Division of Statewide Planning, presented an overview of state solar energy policy and an update on the development of a new model solar ordinance.
The purpose of the workshops, the two officials said, was not to tell the towns how to manage solar proposals, but to provide information and guidance.
“The documents that we’re putting out will not be forced on municipalities,” Kearns said. “What we’re trying to do is provide guidance, siting ordinance information for the towns to use in their respective land use decision-making processes. It’s not a statewide mandate that towns have to do it.”
State representatives have already met with several cities and towns, including Charlestown, and will be holding a similar workshop in Westerly on Sept. 13.
Hopkinton has approved 15 ground-mounted solar photovoltaic projects and is considering applications for seven additional installations. Residents opposed to those projects being built in residential and wooded areas have formed a group — Hopkinton Citizens for Responsible Planning — and hired an attorney to file a notice of objection to the council’s consideration of comprehensive and zoning plan amendments after the Planning Board had issued recommendations against approving them.
With many of the group’s members attending Monday’s meeting, Town Council President Frank Landolfi announced that he would not permit comments on the current solar energy situation.
“This is a presentation by Chris [Kearns] and his group,” he said. “We’re not going to talk about current, past, future solar projects in town at all tonight,” he said.
Kearns and Hess explained the state’s energy plan, Energy 2035, which aims to have 45 percent of Rhode Island’s energy from renewable sources by the year 2035. They also presented several general zoning guidelines, explaining the options towns have for reviewing solar proposals, and gave a brief tutorial on different types of solar-energy systems, including arrays built on “solar canopies,” which can be erected over parking lots. Two examples of potential sites for this type of facility, they said, are the Westerly Shopping Center on Granite Street and the parking lot at the Richmond YMCA.
Despite Landolfi’s earlier admonition, council members and residents asked many questions, several of which focused on the decommissioning process and the challenges of calculating decommissioning bonds for facilities that will last between 20 and 30 years.
Sharon Davis, a vocal critic of the town’s current solar approval process who is slated to fill a vacant seat on the Town Council in November, said she was reassured that the state was not mandating that the towns adhere to certain siting protocols, but she remained opposed to amending zoning ordinances to allow projects to be built in residential zones and wooded areas.
“Right now, the farm variance projects, we don’t have any problems with that, because they’re small and they’re on the farmers’ land,” she said. “We don’t have any problem with things that are already zoned commercial. What we have a problem with is residential-zoned property being changed to commercial just for solar projects, and right in the middle of a neighborhood. That’s what we really object to.”