HOPKINTON — Packing meetings, signing petitions and donating thousands to an online legal fund, the members of the group, Hopkinton Citizens for Responsible Planning, have become a powerful force in the fight against several recent commercial solar energy proposals in their town.
The grassroots activism is a dramatic contrast to recent years when it was unusual to see more than a handful of people at council meetings.
But activism is not unheard of in the town. Citizen resistance is a Hopkinton tradition that dates back at least as far as 1833, when Hopkinton-born abolitionist Prudence Crandall opened a school for African American girls, defying conventions and provoking legal retaliation.
Citizens also united in the 1980s to fight a dog-racing track at Exit 1, and they resisted again in 2004, when a developer proposed a large retail development at Exit 1 that would include big box stores such as Walmart. Residents formed the group Hopkinton First!! to oppose it.
Supporters of the big box development retaliated by forming their own group, Hopkinton Organized to Promote the Economy. Town Council member Scott Bill Hirst, who was on the council during the big box debate, said the dog track and big box issues caused serious rifts in the town.
“The late John Gilman, then State Representative, was trying to get a dog track on his property at Exit 1, off I-95,” he wrote in an email. "Gilman years later promoted big box stores on his land there. Because of opposition to the dog track, Gilman, running for another term for state representative, withdrew [as an] active candidate."
As recently as last summer, residents were largely unaware of the spate of industrial-scale solar energy proposals that were flooding the town and that many of those commercial solar developers were requesting comprehensive plan and zoning changes so they could build their projects in wooded residential zones.
Hopkinton Conservation Commission member John Pennypacker was one of the first residents to sound the alarm. Pennypacker, who founded the advocacy group, Keep Hopkinton Country, three years ago to fight a proposal by the State of Rhode Island to build a large welcome center and transit hub at Exit 1, said the influx of industrial - scale solar applications, and the extensive deforestation they would cause, took him by surprise.
“I don’t think anybody would have seen it coming, because everything we hear about solar is how green and how environmentally-friendly it is, and by and large it is, where you compare it to burning coal or oil,” he said. “But when you do those comparisons, it’s typically not ‘we’re going to deforest hundreds of acres of land and plant these panels here.'”
There was little or no objection from residents when two large-scale solar proposals, one at 310 Main Street and another on Alton Bradford Road, received approvals for comprehensive plan and zoning changes. Then came an application last summer by Rhode Island Solar Renewable Energy for amendments that would change the designations of several parcels from residential to commercial special to allow construction of an 11.5 AC-megawatt array near the Old Depot Road neighborhood.
“It’s where people really started to come out in droves,” Pennypacker said. “I don’t know if it’s just because of the particular neighbors that got wind of it or if it was ‘hey, this is enough. This is the third one in as many months. Let’s take a step and reflect upon what we want to do as a town.’”
Old Depot Road neighbors Joe Moreau and Steve Wiehl had never been involved in activism before.
“I’d always considered myself to be pretty conservative on most issues,” Wiehl said. “I think of my interest was in national issues, and this is absolutely my first time where I became involved in a local issue.”
Wiehl said the experience of fighting town hall had taught him some valuable lessons.
“When you don’t watch what’s going on in places you live and the powers even at this local level, which, at first glance might not seem that monumental, when you really look at it, though, these folks have a great amount to say about how you live locally. Not only do you have to fight for them to give you the opportunity to be heard, but then, if it’s a contrary opinion, that’s where the activism starts and the action to neighbors and involving people in the process really has to begin.”
When he learned of the proposal, Moreau began going door to door, alerting neighbors and encouraging them to get involved.
The response was dramatic and the proposal was defeated.
“At one of the meetings at the [Chariho] Middle School, we had 190 residents,” Moreau said. “But we didn’t stop. We kept the pressure up on the Town Council with telephone calls, letters to the editor, emails to the Town Council.”
Moreau, who is retired, was persuaded by residents who were frustrated with the Town Council to run as a write-in council candidate in the last election. Despite his decision to run at the last minute, he received several hundred votes.
“I think people were really bonded together,” he said. “We all had the same message and I guess they liked what I was doing, and that was just talking to people and banging on doors and explaining things.”
Hopkinton Citizens for Responsible Planning is born
Local activism continued to grow. Led by part time resident Eric Bibler, who has experience fighting a proposed wind energy project on Cape Cod, residents formed a group, Hopkinton Citizens for Responsible Planning. They also launched a petition, which now has more than 500 signatures, started a legal fund and hired attorney James Donnelly.
Bibler said he believed that the residents' actions to fight the Woodville Alton Road proposal had resulted in a critically important victory.
“The comprehensive plan is a zoning map, and is, effectively a social contract between the town and all of its residents,” Bibler said. “People make plans to purchase property or build a home based on their reliance on the integrity of that plan and the people that administer it. If they approved that project, people would wake up to find this giant industrial facility across the street from them where it didn’t belong, and that was grossly unfair.”
After the demise of the Woodville Alton Road proposal, Bibler said residents told him to keep the remaining funds and use them to fight other commercial solar projects involving changes to the comprehensive plan.
“I am very impressed,” he said. "It tells me, first of all, that Hopkinton residents care passionately about the character of the community they live in, and so I think that’s why they have been continuing to come out to these meetings…My view that I preached was ‘look, we all are in this together and you can’t just go to the hearings and the meetings that pertain to your neighborhood.' We all have to support each other, so we encourage people from every neighborhood in town to go to every meeting.”
Jeff and Carolyn Light are among those residents who now make a point of attending every meeting. They also donated significant seed money, $10,000, to the group’s legal fund.
“We decided that we were going to make a bigger contribution, and from our own experience, on occasions where we have done things like this in the past, we empowered the group to have a lot more confidence and to stand up straight and push back against the Town Council and to be heard,” Carolyn said. "I’m offended that we had to put together a legal fund at all. I think just the voices that were present and growing should have been enough for these people sitting around that table to say ‘wait a minute. It’s getting awful noisy in here’. In the end, what the residents are saying is ‘just pay attention to the comprehensive plan. What the hell is the matter with you people?’”
Long-serving Town Council member Sylvia Thompson, who has been criticized by some residents for her support of some solar proposals, said she appreciated the need for citizens to take action. In the 1980s, Thompson was part of a citizens' group that protested personnel changes at Wood River Health Services.
“Before I was elected in 1990, I led a group of 200 when we were opposed to a decision,” she said. “So, I’ve been on both sides. I respect residents that join together, attend meetings and make their voices heard.”
Pennypacker said he was enjoying watching residents become more engaged in the the business of their town.
“I’m delighted by it,” he said. “I know that people with strong feelings are here in town. When I go and speak before the council, I’m not speaking just for me. There are dozens, hundreds probably of like-minded people. So to see more people get involved, I think it’s wonderful.”