RICHMOND — John Peixinho bought his 40-acre farm on Lewiston Avenue three years ago. The historic property was to be a peaceful getaway from his principal residence in Newport, where Peixinho also owns a business. The Beaver River winds through the neighborhood, which consists mainly of small farms.
Last spring, Peixinho learned that G.D. Beaver River 1 LLC, owned by Green Development and Mark de Pasquale, had applied for a special use permit to build a 5.3-megawatt solar energy facility on a 43-acre agricultural parcel abutting his farm.
The application was denied by Richmond zoning official Russel Brown because the property is not entirely within 2 miles of a National Grid substation, as required by the town. The developer appealed — arguing that the array itself would qualify — but the appeal was filed after the deadline had passed.
The developer took the case to Superior Court. Peixinho, represented by attorney Kelly Fracassa, is also a party to the case. Fracassa said, “Apparently, they did not timely appeal that decision and so the Zoning Board bounced them out on it when they did file an appeal of it. They appealed that to the Superior Court and that’s where it sits right now.”
Meanwhile, the town has notified Peixinho that another developer has submitted a solar application for land on the other side of his property, "right next door," he said.
The new application involves a 2.8-megawatt solar facility proposed by Solar DG LLC for 19 acres of a 103-acre parcel on Shannock Hill Road owned by Cherry Croft farm. The parcel is in an R-2 zone where commercial solar is prohibited, and would first require minor subdivision approval and then a comprehensive plan and zoning change from “farm forest and open space” to an R-3, or residential zone, where commercial solar energy is permitted on properties of 3 acres or more.
The Shannock Hill Road application has since been withdrawn.
Yet another proposal has been filed by developer Vito Buonomano, who has built solar arrays on turf farm land on Route 2 near Heaton Orchard Road, not far from Lewiston Avenue.
Buonomano has applied to the town for a zoning change that would allow him to erect canopies over his existing solar arrays, thereby adding more panels to the parcels. Each array is currently limited to 1 acre. He is asking the town to increase the limit to 2 acres.
“He’s not just talking about solar canopies that cover an acre of ground,” Peixinho said. “They’re urban solar panel installations where you can park underneath. He’s talking about doing it on Route 2 in conjunction with these solar farms, under the guise that the farmers can park their equipment underneath it … The problem with the solar canopies is, you can’t hide them at all. They’re 17 feet in the air.”
Peixinho and his neighbors, including former Planning Board member Walter Prescott and homeowner Sherri Dinneen Stearns, decided to form their own group, the Beaver River Valley Community Association, after hearing about the group formed by Hopkinton residents to oppose some solar proposals.
“I think Hopkinton has done a great job with what their association is doing,” Prescott said, referring to the Hopkinton Citizens for Responsible Planning. “They’re putting out the word: 'We don’t want this.’”
Peixinho said, “These things definitely concern us. The fact that there are two of them side by side like that, and they’re going to have such a negative impact on such an important cultural landscape.”
Peixinho’s property, Clark Farm, is under consideration for registration in the National Register of Historic Places. He said that two of the three projects are too close for comfort.
“The state historic preservation commission, in all their inventories and reports, calls Shannock Hill Road and Beaver River Road one of the most important cultural landscapes that remains in the state of Rhode Island,” he said. “That’s really what we’re talking about here, the impact that this is going to have on this section and the rural nature of this community.”
Dinneen Stearns said she was concerned that Richmond's comprehensive plan was vulnerable, after hearing about similar changes in Hopkinton. She said she was relying on the plan, and "what the town of Richmond has promised in that plan ... I’m holding them to it as far as where I live and where I choose to be.”
Members of the group have been diligent about attending Planning Board meetings.
“I was really impressed with the Planning Board, Peixinho said. “They were articulate, informed, focused on their stuff. They know what their charge and their mission is and they really pay attention to it, and I’m hopeful that they’re going to make the right decision.”
Prescott said he hoped the Town Council would not disregard the recommendations of the Planning Board. “I think what bothers me as much or more is these two [projects] being so close in proximity to my property, what if these are both approved in R-2 areas, what’s going to happen down the road? Have we opened up the door? Are we going to have, then, more and more R-2s that become solar farm field?"
In an email, Town Planner Juliana Berry wrote that “Richmond doesn’t have a set mentality on solar, but rather recognizes that there are diverse land uses, land cover, parcels, zoning, and goals spread across the town and reflected in our Zoning Ordinance and Comprehensive Community Plan
"If an applicant wants to request to re-\zone their lot and amend the Comp Plan in order to permit commercial/utility principal solar where the use is not currently permitted, then it’s the applicant’s right to request the change. But the town has strict standards and conclusions that must be met in order to approve such a major alteration — especially important to this process is the vision of Richmond as endorsed by our Future Land Use Map, by the set goals and policies in the Comp Plan, by consistency with the state’s guide plans (such as Land Use 2025), and by the real-time feedback from the constituents.”
Prescott said, “Comprehensive plans were put together, zonings were put together, with the idea that it’s a rural community. We want to keep it that way. Yes, we will have solar arrays, but they should be in commercial areas and not in residential, rural areas … I think the Planning Board would feel that way and I think the citizens of Richmond would feel that way. They didn’t come here from outlying areas to find solar arrays on every corner of their town.”
The Beaver River Valley Community Association is open to all Richmond residents. The group’s website is:https://www.brvca.org/