RICHMOND — Members of the Town Council voted at a public hearing Tuesday to deny a request from Northeast Solar and Wind Power for zoning ordinance amendments that would permit larger solar facilities as well as the construction of solar canopies.
Town Planner Shaun Lacey explained the requested amendments, which would effectively double the permitted sizes of solar facilities on farms.
“For farms that are 30 acres or more in size, the ordinance would allow for more than one solar energy system as an accessory use, not to exceed 100,000 square feet,” he explained.
Farms of 10 acres or greater would be permitted one accessory solar energy system of 50,000 square feet or smaller.
The third requested change was the permitting of currently-prohibited solar canopies, steel structures raised off the ground, with solar panels on their roofs. Each canopy would be approximately 14 feet high to allow a truck to park underneath.
Developer Vito Buonomano, who has built several solar energy facilities in Richmond, some on Route 2 turf farms, began the zoning amendment application process in 2018. The Planning Board heard the proposal in April and recommended that the council deny the application on the grounds that it was inconsistent with the town’s comprehensive plan, did not support agriculture and could encourage a proliferation of solar facilities known as solar sprawl.
Buonomano made a brief presentation to the council showing photographs of existing solar canopies in other towns. Canopies, he said were more environmentally-sustainable than solar arrays installed in clear cut forests and the state was about to embark on a program to encourage the construction of more of them.
“Next year, Rhode Island is starting a solar canopy program,” he said. “That was put in place by the environmentalists in Rhode Island because of the massive amount of clear-cutting trees and open space that was being taken up with these solar fields.”
Turf farmers, Buonomano said, were eager to install solar canopies because they would provide shelter for fragile, harvested turf and farming equipment.
Concerned residents, most of them members of the Beaver River Valley Community Association, implored council members to heed the recommendation of the Planning Board and deny the application.
North Road resident David Russo said he supported solar energy where it is appropriately sited, but not in the rural communities of Richmond.
“Based on the Richmond Planning Board recommendation the existing Richmond comprehensive plan and the opposing testimony of myself and many of my fellow citizens, I urge you to deny this application and the ordinance changes it seeks,” he said.
Attorney Kelly Fracassa, representing resident John Peixihno, said solar energy was not an accessory use to farming and therefore, declaring it as such would be a violation of state law.
“This is not even close to an accessory use,” he said. “Because of that, it violates the definition of accessory use in the Zoning Enabling Act and municipal authorities simply don’t have the legal authority to enact ordinances which violate the enabling act.”
Councilor Paul Michaud said he could not see any advantages to commercial solar projects, other than property tax revenue, for the town.
“I think the cities are using the small towns like Richmond and Hopkinton for places to put these solar panels because there’s no place in the cities to put them,” he said.
Council President Richard Nassaney said he thought amending the town’s solar energy ordinance, which is only three years old, was premature and other council members agreed, voting unanimously to deny the application.
After the vote, Peixihno said he had trusted the council to make the right decision.
“I knew the council was going to do the right thing, and support the Planning Board and the comprehensive land use plan,” he said. “As far as I can see, it’s over. I think Northeast Solar is going to go back upstate and leave us alone for a while.”
Buonomano said he believed he could continue to work within the parameters of the town’s existing ordinance.
“I think that we still can work with that ordinance in terms of whether it’s a solar canopy or a ground mount pole,” he said. “What they basically said was, they want to use the existing ordinance and at this particular point in time it’s a little premature to change it. The solar canopy program isn’t going to be out until next year so we can possibly go before the Town Council on a one-by-one basis and put them far off the road where nobody can see them.”