HOPKINTON — Citing concerns about size, consistency with the comprehensive plan, and most of all, the opposition of residents, council members voted Monday to deny the application by Southern Sky Renewable Energy LLC for comprehensive plan and a zoning change from residential and farming to commercial special to allow the construction of a large solar energy facility.
Before an audience of 63 in the Chariho Middle School auditorium, Sharon Davis, Scott Bill Hirst and Sylvia Thompson said no to the application, while Town Council President Frank Landolfi and councilor Barbara Capalbo said they supported it.
Hearings on the proposal to build a 58-megawatt solar array that would occupy approximately half of a 358-acre wooded parcel at 130 Dye Hill Road began last October. The Planning Board had unanimously recommended that the Town Council reject the project, which would require the clearing of 175 acres or approximately 35,000 trees.
Councilors read prepared statements before voting. Capalbo spoke for more than half an hour, enumerating the conditions, or “codicils,” that she required from the developer before she would approve the application. Those included major financial contributions from Southern Sky, such as paying the $130,000 expected cost of demolishing the old Ashaway Elementary School, a 100 percent discount on the town’s electricity bills, and a payment of $250,000 to the town’s capital improvement plan for the Town Hall expansion and consolidation project.
Capalbo disagreed with the assertion of the Planning Board that the large commercial facility would not be compatible with the town’s comprehensive plan.
“Based upon the evidence and expert testimony submitted at the public hearings, the proposed zoning ordinance amendment and the proposed comprehensive plan and future land use map plan amendment… are both consistent with the authority reserved for the council under the comprehensive plan to identify those areas in town where such uses are appropriate and identify conditions under which such uses may exist," she said.
Hirst said he had listened to residents and would not support the proposal. He also chastised Capalbo for her list of conditions.
“I don’t agree with Barbara’s codicils at all and I think that we have to establish for the public and those people outside this town that you cannot put a price on coming to Hopkinton - if you’re coming to Hopkinton, you’ve got to do certain things. That’s repugnant,” he said.
Davis said her decision to deny the application was based on the project’s lack of compatibility with the comprehensive plan, the recommendation of the Planning Board to deny the application and other factors, including overwhelming resident opposition.
Davis also questioned whether the energy was even needed and asked the council to create a total megawatt goal for the town.
“To date, we have approved 16 projects totaling 51 megawatts,” she said. “Since the 8,116 Hopkinton residents use 98 megawatts today, we have already replaced 51 percent of our town’s usage by renewable energy. By comparison, the governor’s total state renewable energy goal is 1,000 megawatts by the year 2020.”
Thompson, who had supported the project when the hearings first began, drew loud applause when she said she could not approve the application for such a large project.
“It’s approximately five times larger than the previous proposal that we have done,” she said.
Landolfi said he supported the proposal because of the town’s financial situation.
“This has been a struggle to attempt to balance the needs the needs of the town and all its residents when our school budget continually rises,” he said. “This school budget forced me to look at additional revenue sources to keep pace with rising expenses the town’s been faced with.”
When councilors voted 3 to 2 to deny the application, opponents said they were pleased but still prepared to fight any additional commercial projects in residential zones.
“It’s a step in the right direction, Carolyn Light said. “This is only one of several.”
“The fight has not stopped,” Joseph Moreau added. “We will continue to oppose any residential to commercial [zoning changes] for solar.”
Asked later what had made her change her mind about the project, Thompson said it had all boiled down to owls.
“There was a young girl, 10 years old, who was concerned about the owls and made her concerns to the council at a council meeting,” she said. “It wasn’t at a hearing, it wasn’t about a specific proposal. But she was worried about the cutting down of the forest because she wanted to know where the owls were going to go…It just reminded me of where I came from, and the land and the forest and the animals and that’s something that has to be taken into account.”