HOPKINTON — A Warwick developer has proposed a project that would include a solar array that would be one of the largest in New England.
Concerned residents packed the council chambers at Wednesday’s Planning Board pre-application hearing on the proposal, dubbed "Stone Ridge at Hopkinton," by the firm, RI-95 LLC. The project would include five, two-story office buildings and a massive solar array that would occupy more than 148 acres of the 252-acre parcel.
RI-95 LLC purchased the land from the Mashantucket Pequot tribal nation in March 2019 for $750,000. Company principal Walter Manning introduced himself to the board with a statement that included the assertion that because the property was in a commercial special zone, the proposed project including the solar array was permitted by right.
“The property is zoned special commercial and as such we propose to stay within the allowable uses as a matter of right, which include, but are not limited to, solar and commercial development,” he said.
Located on Palmer Circle, the parcel is located in a zone that was changed from residential to commercial special in 1990 to accommodate a mixed use development including a golf course and hotel that were never built. The zoning amendment contained a provision that at least 40% of the property, exclusive of wetlands, marshes, ponds, be left as open space. The Stone Ridge proposal has no provision for open space and would cover almost 90% of the property.
Project engineer Sergio Cherenzia described the parcel, which is almost entirely wooded.
“As in most New England areas, there’s stone walls, there’s trails that exist on the property. The property is not located with any natural heritage area, scenic road corridor or state designated scenic area,” he said.
Cherenzia also noted that the project would meet all the requirements for the commercial special zone as well as the town’s non-residential photovoltaic solar energy systems ordinance.
Board chair Alfred DiOrio explained that the pre-application was an opportunity for board members and others to provide feedback on the initial proposal. Manning said his firm was looking for guidance before investing further in the project.
“We just wanted to get this application in front of you so that we can get some feedback,” Manning said. “It’s early in the game. We know there’s more process to this.”
DiOrio and other board members had concerns that the developer was attempting to include a solar energy facility in a zone that was approved decades earlier, before solar projects were being built.
“Clearly, at that time, the vocabulary that they’re using today was not even contemplated,” he said. “So, to automatically jump to the fact that solar is allowed here is not really acceptable to me. I’m not prepared to accept that just yet … We need to go back to what the Town Council and the Planning Board approved, back when this was resolved. It does not include solar.”
Board member Ron Prellwitz said he had consulted with Deputy Zoning Official Sherri Desjardins, who had a different opinion.
“According to her interpretation, this is legal under commercial,” he said.
Member Emily Schumchenia said she interpreted the designation of commercial special as having certain limitations on uses which would convey with the property, including the allocation of open space.
“It actually describes that at least 40% of the total area of the planned development, exclusive of wetlands, ponds, marshes protected natural areas but inclusive of golf courses shall be set aside as open space,” she said. “A minute ago, you said no open space is proposed in this plan.”
Cherenzia replied that he would need a clarification of the permitted uses in a commercial special zone.
Another member, Carolyn Light, asked why the proposed development was so large.
“Does it need to be that big?” she asked. “Is there better technology by the time you guys get around to doing that that would allow you to generate that kind of electric and reduce the footprint?”
Cherenzia said the initial plan called for greatest use of the land.
“We went to the maximum on this,” he said. “It’s much better to come in with what you can do per the regulations, in my experience, and then work back to your restrictions from there.”
Town Planner James Lamphere suggested the board ask Town Solicitor Kevin McAllister to look into the original zoning change and what the intent of the council was at the time.
“I think, really what the Planning Board should ask our solicitor to do is review the documents that have been prepared by town staff in the past, check them for validity and measure them against our current solicitor’s opinion,” he said. “Beyond that, what do we have to go on?”
The board agreed to ask McAllister to look into the matter.