WESTERLY — A solar power array is being contemplated for land on White Rock Road where a stone quarry currently operates. It would produce enough power to satisfy all municipal and school department demands while protecting the aquifer that feeds some of the town’s drinking water wells.
The proposed solar project is part of a plan that is in an early conceptual phase. Under the plan, the town would buy a 100-acre property for $3.34 million, but only if it was determined that lease payments from a solar developer, combined with anticipated savings on what the town and schools pay for electricity, would be enough to cover the cost of buying the land, Town Manager Derrik M. Kennedy said during an interview Thursday.
“There is no interest in doing this project if it isn’t economically feasible. If it is, I think there’s a path forward,” Kennedy said.
The land is owned by Cherenzia Excavation Inc. Under an option-to-purchase agreement signed in late December, the town would purchase the land from Rawson Materials, a Putnam-based company that is negotiating with Cherenzia to buy the property as well as Cherenzia’s Old Hopkinton Road quarry site.
The town and the two companies signed the agreement, which gives the town until Dec. 31 to exercise its right to purchase the property. A closing would occur on July 1, 2019. The price was determined by Keystone Consulting Group, a real estate appraisal firm based in North Attleborough, Mass. The firm was retained by Washington Trust Co., the bank which holds a mortgage on the property.
The town is currently in the midst of a lease/purchase agreement for an adjacent 41-acre piece of land, known as Parcel A, that is also owned by Cherenzia. That deal, struck in October 2014, gives the town a 30-day window to buy the property envisioned for the solar array (Parcel B), but Cherenzia and Rawson acknowledged that the town would be hard-pressed to act within 30 days and agreed to give the town through December to decide if it wants to purchase Parcel B.
The lease/purchase agreement for Parcel A was seen as a way for the town to protect the drinking-water supply. Parcels A and B are both within the town’s Aquifer Protection Overlay District, an area established in the town’s zoning regulations to regulate land use atop the aquifer that feeds the White Rock Road well field. That field produces about 70 percent of the municipal drinking-water supply. Parcel A is located within the wellhead protection area established by the state.
Bids from companies interested in developing the solar project are being accepted by the town through Tuesday. About 20 developers attended a pre-bid meeting last month.
If the project goes forward, Kennedy said, the selected developer could place additional solar panels, beyond the number needed to produce power for the town and schools, and sell the extra power on its own. The additional panels would cover more of the property and produce additional lease revenues to the town, Kennedy said. The municipality spent $966,000 on electricity in fiscal 2016-17. The schools spent $627,000 during the same period.
The initial cost of buying the land could be covered by funds in the undesignated fund balances or surplus accounts maintained by the town’s water and sewer utility enterprise funds, Kennedy said. Depending on the terms of a potential deal struck with a solar developer, the developer might provide a large initial payment that could also be used toward the cost of the land, Kennedy said.
If the proposed project proves not to be viable, Kennedy said he would continue to pursue a net metering arrangement by which the town would buy power from a solar power system established in a different municipality. Under net metering arrangements, customers commit to receiving service from specific providers in return for a guaranteed rate. The town solicited bids for net metering arrangements last year but did not execute a contract.
“Given our proximity to the water and our beautiful beaches, I feel Westerly has a responsibility to be a leader in sustainability and to use our natural resources in a way that helps our town,” Kennedy said.
If the sale to Rawson occurs, Cherenzia will remain in the site-construction and product-trucking businesses, according to Thomas J. Liguori Jr., Cherenzia’s lawyer.
“We will continue to sell material from the same facilities and deliver it locally to our local customers,” Liguori said during an interview Thursday.
The company will also continue as a real estate developer and will maintain its engineering division.
Additionally, Cherenzia expects Rawson to offer opportunities to Cherenzia’s quarry workers, Liguori said.
This article was edited at 12:21 p.m. on Feb. 13, 2018 to correct information about the appraisal performed by Keystone Consulting Group. The firm was hired by Washington Trust Co. not Cherenzia Co.