WESTERLY — A small audience was on hand Thursday as state officials reviewed guidance they are developing for municipalities on how best to handle proposals for solar developments.
Officials with the state Office of Energy Resources and the Division of Statewide Planning reviewed the work of an advisory committee that is developing a guidance document and model ordinances for zoning and taxation of solar projects. The two agencies released the first public draft of the ordinance templates on Thursday.
“Nothing in here takes away any authority you have,” said Nancy Hess, a supervising planner with the Office of Statewide Planning, referr to the ability of each municipality to develop its own solar power ordinances and regulations.
Hess, who worked in Westerly’s planning office in the 1990s, was speaking to an audience of about 10 residents, town officials, and representatives of energy businesses in Council Chambers at Town Hall.
“The perception out there is that solar always involves cutting down trees, but the truth is” solar projects can be mounted on homes and commercial buildings and parking lots or on previously developed land that towns are hoping to reuse, including former industrial sites, said Christopher Kearns, chief of program development at the state Office of Energy Resources.
The current guidance document recommends that municipalities determine what parts of their town or city are appropriate for renewable energy projects. Through local zoning regulations, the state advisory committee recommends making solar projects a potential land use. The regulations should be further developed to establish guidelines for project reviews, the document said.
The guidance document also recommends requiring that vegetative buffers and transition zones be created adjacent to solar projects. Local regulations should also address soil removal, and residential rooftop arrays should be allowed with few regulations, according to the guidance document.
“It really shouldn’t be looked at differently than an air conditioning system or a heating system,” Hess said.
Kearns also stressed the importance of municipalities becoming familiar with state incentive programs “so you’re not surprised by applications” once local regulations are adopted.
Marilyn Dolce asked whether the town’s plans for a solar project that is estimated to produce 10,896,000 kilowatt hours in its first year on White Rock Road will have negative effects such as noise or visual blight on the neighborhood.
Mark Nelson, a town resident who works for Clean Energy Collective, a solar developer, explained that the project is likely to cause virtually no noise when compared to the quarry operation that currently exists on the site. Dolce, whose Springbrook Road property is near the White Rock Road property, said she is also concerned that other solar projects will crop in the neighborhood.
“Don’t get us wrong, we’re not against solar as long as its done correctly with buffers in place,” said Thomas Dolce, Marilyn’s husband.
Lisa Pellegrini, director of the Westerly’s Department of Development Services, said her office is working to establish an ordinance that would regulate solar projects in town. “Our object isn’t to go out and clear cut. We want to identify large tracts of land and then decide, do we want this,” Pellegrini said.
Nelson said that property owners and municipalities are faced with a choice.
“People have to make a decision because we are bringing down the number of fossil fuel plants,” he said. “Coal isn’t a very good solution, nuclear has got its own problems, natural gas has its own problems...there’s all kinds of energy choices coming off line and one of the least obtrusive is solar, even through it might take up space,” Nelson said.
This article was edited at 9:48 a.m. to correctly identify Mark Nelson.