HOPKINTON — The fourth and final installment of the hearing on proposed zoning and comprehensive plan changes to allow the construction of the largest solar energy project in New England closed Monday, with attorneys for the developer and an opposition group making their final arguments. Residents also had one more chance to weigh in at the hearing, which once again took place in the Chariho Middle School auditorium to accommodate the large number of people who wished to attend.
Southern Sky Renewable Energy LLC is proposing to build a 58-megawatt solar array that would occupy approximately half of a 358–acre wooded parcel at 130 Dye Hill Road. The land is adjacent to the state-owned Arcadia Management Area. The Planning Board recommended that the Town Council reject the project, which would require the clearing of 175 acres or approximately 35,000 trees.
Attorney James Donnelly, representing Hopkinton Citizens for Responsible Planning, reminded the council that the town's comprehensive plan, which was amended only last February, is a document that took years and extensive public consultation to prepare and should not be changed to suit the needs of project applicants.
“I don’t think anything’s happened other than dollar signs in your eyes,” he told the council. “And that’s not a reason to change the zoning ordinance, because those decisions are reactive land use decisions, something that the state legislature has deemed necessary to eliminate to bring consistency. People live here. People own property here. People buy property here. People rely on what the town says.”
Connelly argued that Councilor Barbara Capalbo, who has presented the developer with a list of “codicils” — projects that Southern Sky would have to fund to gain her support — acted improperly because she acted alone, without a resolution from the council.
“It’s also ultra vires, meaning beyond the permissible scope of the actions of the Town Council,” he said. “The Town Council is addressed with the charter and your ordinances etc., and sets forth what you can and cannot do. That’s the Town Council. It has nothing to do with what an individual can do.”
Southern Sky attorney Joseph Shekarchi countered that comprehensive plans were dynamic documents that were meant to be amended as necessary.
“The comprehensive plan that you go by, that every single city and town goes by, is a living, breathing document that is built to change,” he said. “Amendments can be made, not only by the town, but by applicants.”
As nearly 100 residents looked on, Shekarchi also questioned the validity of the 500 signatures on a petition submitted to the council by the opposition group.
“There are 500 people who have allegedly signed the petition, and I don’t dispute that number,” he said. “What I want to know is, who are those people?”
Several audience members stood and angrily said they were signatories.
“Who’s a resident of Connecticut?” Shekarchi continued after council President Frank Landolfi ordered residents to stop interrupting. “Who’s a resident of Connecticut who may own property here? Who’s a resident that pays taxes in Connecticut? Who came down from Cranston?" He asked how many of the signers truly represented Hopkinton, "and what about the 7,700 other people who did not object to this?”
Newly elected council members Scott Bill Hirst and Sharon Davis weighed in on the proposal.
“It feels good to be on this side of the table where we can make some changes,” Davis said, prompting applause. “I support the Planning Board’s decisions and I support the comprehensive plan, and I will take those two things into consideration.”
Hirst said he believed the council should follow the recommendations of the Planning Board.
“When the Planning Board unanimously recommends against something, that should give me and the other members of the council pause,” he said.
Project opponent Joe Moreau said the fight to stop the council from approving the zoning amendment was far from over.
“The hearing is over, the fight still continues, because of the destruction the town of Hopkinton,” he said. “There’s three ways I feel that we can eliminate this. One is through court cases, which are soon to follow. The second is to remove and recall town councilors and the third is through the election of 2020.”
The council will render its decision on Jan. 28.