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Hopkinton Town Hall. Sun file photo

HOPKINTON — Members of the Hopkinton Town Council continued to hash out the details of proposed amendments to the town’s solar ordinance at a Feb. 16 workshop.

If adopted, the changes, contained in a 22-page document first discussed at the Dec. 7 council meeting, would represent a comprehensive overhaul of the town’s  photovoltaic solar energy systems (PSES) ordinance, last amended in January 2019.

The amendments were submitted by attorney Peter Skwirz on behalf of his clients, Tom and Cynthia Sculco, who own a property that abuts the sites of two proposed commercial solar energy projects.

The practice of approving zoning changes to allow the construction of commercial solar projects in residential zones has been a hot-button issue for many Hopkinton residents. Council President Stephen Moffitt said the objective of the ordinance was to keep commercial-scale solar projects from being built in the town. 

“We are trying to have an ordinance that is not going to allow for any large-scale solar, so we’ve changed the district use table to reflect that,” he said. “We are not allowing the large-scale solar, even in manufacturing [zones]. We are trying to stop industrial-sized solar in town.”

Some other uses, Moffitt said, would be permitted.

“We are perfectly fine with, obviously, roof-mounted solar, as a board, that’s what’s in the proposed draft, and we have added a ground-mounted accessory solar that was not there before, and that’s going to be predicated on a special-use permit, so that way, people aren’t putting it in their front yard and they’re not putting it right next to their neighbor’s house, so we’ve kind of opened up some stipulations to allow for some of that so we can avoid having ground-mounted everywhere," he said. "People with older houses, historic homes or somebody that has enough land and they don’t want to put it on their house, that they have that ability to do so.”

Council Vice President Sharon Davis raised the issue of solar projects on contaminated sites and suggested the council allow solar projects in manufacturing zones if the sites are on contaminated land. (The town is hoping to eventually convert a former landfill on Stubtown Road to a solar energy facility.)

“I’ve been thinking a lot about what we discussed in terms of the contaminated-site solar energy systems and I went online and got a list from RIDEM [Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management] of the contaminated sites in Hopkinton,” she said. “There are about nine of them. Four of them have been remediated and I actually am changing my mind back to the original line where contaminated sites should be permitted in manufacturing.”

Councilor Robert Marvel said he believed that solar projects on contaminated sites should be allowed, but only by special-use permit.

“I think that contaminated sites should always get more scrutiny,” he said.

The other council members agreed.

Skwirz said he could revise the draft to include a provision for special-use permits for solar projects on contaminated sites.

“I do know that the last draft I circulated also might have needed some tweaks with regard to ground-mounted solar as an accessory use,” he said. “… I could work that language in and include the language about the contaminated-site solar.”

Davis also questioned the special-use permit requirement for accessory, or residential, ground-mounted solar panels, but Moffitt said the special-use permit would provide “another level of scrutiny.” 

“I just think we need to protect neighbors and neighborhoods, and that’s how I feel, and that’s what I’m going to stand by,” he said. “I just want to make sure, if someone’s going to put ground-mounted solar in their yard, that it’s going to be placed in the proper spot, and I think the language that is in this proposal, in the clean draft is the best way to go about guaranteeing that it’s not just arbitrarily put on a piece of property.”

The amended ordinance would also limit the power-generating capacity of a residential, ground-mounted solar array to 125% of "the energy that is necessary to support the principal use of the parcel on which the solar system is located.”

During the public comment period, Hope Valley resident Mary Karlsson objected to both the limit on capacity and the requirement for a special-use permit.

“I want to get rid of all fossil fuels on my property and go totally electric,” she said. “…Just allow me, in the ordinance, without having to come before you for a special-use permit, when I’ve got five-and-a-half acres and I have a historic home. They can’t do this ugly roof mounting.”

Moffitt said he was standing by the special-use permit requirement.

“That is why I proposed to allow ground-mounted solar with a special-use [permit] so it wasn’t littered all over the town,” he said. “We had guidelines and we had specific situations where you could and could not have it. I mean, I‘m going to stand firm on that.”

Marvel said he, too, supported the special-use permit.

“We are taking the best approach that we can that’s going to protect the entire town with regard to solar sprawl that we’ve seen in the past few years,” he said. “I think that a special-use permit, while it maybe puts a little difficulty on the people asking for it, I think that it is probably the best way that we have right now to ensure that the town as a whole is protected, and I would not be comfortable changing that to a permitted use."

The hearing was continued to March 1.

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