WOOD RIVER JCT. — At a fifth meeting Tuesday, held once again in the Chariho Middle School auditorium to accommodate a large crowd, the Hopkinton Town Council finally concluded its hearing on a controversial application for zoning and comprehensive plan amendments that would allow the construction of a commercial solar energy facility.
The proposal by Rhode Island Solar Renewable Energy III LLC, of Cranston, is requesting amendments that would change the designations of several parcels from residential to commercial special. The developer is proposing a 11.5 AC-megawatt array on three lots, one at 350 Woodville Alton Road, another at 6 Townsend Road, and a third on an adjacent site that was used as the town landfill and, later, as a private dump.
Many residents of Old Depot Road and other neighborhoods near the site oppose the plan, which would require the clearing of several thousand trees. They have also expressed concerned about stormwater runoff and flooding.
The Hopkinton Planning Board has recommended rejecting the project on the grounds that it is not consistent with the town’s comprehensive plan.
Of the 65 residents who attended the final session of the hearing, many pleaded with council members to heed the recommendation of the Planning Board and to think of the legacy they will leave when they are no longer in office.
“I’m looking at the environmental impact,” said Andrea Gardiner, a resident of the Brushy Brook neighborhood, which is also currently under consideration for a large a solar development. “I just beg you not to change our zoning for nonresidents to come in…I think there’s a better way to go about solar energy rather than clear-cutting all this forest.”
Sylvia Stanley, a Hope Valley resident and chairwoman of the Chariho School Committee, reminded council members that their first duty is to the residents.
“The Town Council members were voted to the council to represent the people of Hopkinton, not the people who arrive in town and want to destroy our country property and walk off with lots of money,” she said.
Conservation Commission member John Pennypacker, who worked on the town’s comprehensive plan, questioned the wisdom of amending the comprehensive plan without considering the compatibility of the changes with existing residential uses.
“As you deliberate whether or not you want to change the plan, I want you to think about how you want to be known,” he said. “Do you want to be known as the Town Council that helped developers replace all our trees with solar panels or do you want to be known as the Town Council that listened to the public?”
Eric Bibler, a resident who has previously sparred with Town Council President Frank Landolfi on the solar issue, said he believed the controversy had been good for the town because it had fostered citizen engagement in the process.
“It’s a good thing that we’re having this discussion, because all kinds of town business gets done and people don’t pay attention, and now we’re filling auditoriums with people who are debating what type of community they want to live in,” he said.
Opponents of the project, 30 of whom are represented by attorney James Donnelly, have also questioned the legality of the council’s approval of at least one earlier solar project application, which had been rejected by the Planning Board.
The Hopkinton Code of Ordinances states that in cases in which the Planning Board has issued a recommendation to deny a project, the council can approve changes to the comprehensive plan only by a supermajority vote of two thirds of council members, in other words, a vote of four to one.
However, Town Solicitor Kevin McAllister addressed that and other legal issues at length toward the end of the hearing and concluded that state law, which supersedes the municipal zoning ordinance, requires a simple majority of three and not a supermajority.
The council will render its decision on the Old Depot Road application at a special meeting on Oct. 9.