RICHMOND — An application for a solar energy facility at 36 Woodville Road cleared a hurdle Tuesday when the Planning Board recommended that the Zoning Board approve a special use permit for the project. The board determined that the project, proposed by Freepoint Solar LLC and owner William James, of Stamford, Conn., was consistent with the town’s comprehensive plan.
The board could not agree, however, on how to calculate the amount of the decommissioning bond to cover the cost of the eventual dismantling of the facility. It recommended that the Zoning Board solicit expert testimony to advise the town on an amount that would account for inflation over the life of the array, which would be at least 25 years.
The board recommended that the Town Council deny an application for another project, proposed by Northeast Solar and Wind Power LLC of Providence. The company is seeking to amend the town’s zoning ordinance to allow the expansion of existing solar facilities, and to construct solar canopies above structures already in place. If approved, the amendment would increase the permitted size of accessory solar systems from 1 to 2 acres and allow the construction of solar canopies. (An accessory use may be permitted in addition to a property’s principal use.)
The hearings took place in the cafeteria of Richmond Elementary School to accommodate the many residents wishing to attend. However, Board Chair Philip Damicis cautioned that the meeting was not a public hearing and residents were not allowed to ask questions.
“We’ll be hearing from the applicant, the board will be making a recommendation to the Zoning Board for consistency with the town’s comprehensive plan," Damicis said. "You will have an opportunity at the Zoning Board to voice your opinion and comment at their public hearing.”
Freepoint Solar plans to construct a 4.5-megawatt ground-mounted solar energy system on 22.6 acres of a 64-acre property on Woodville Road. The property is in a residential district and the developer is requesting a special use permit.
Project manager Briony Angus and engineer Denis Moran explained the details of the project, which would be constructed on land that is currently used as a turf farm and would therefore require little clearing of trees.
“The project does not involve a significant amount of clearing at all, the proximity of interconnection on Woodville Road,” Angus told the board. “So it really is compared to some greenfield solar sites that may have been proposed in Richmond and surrounding areas, the fact that it doesn’t involve clearing or significant environmental impacts was something that was really taken into consideration.”
There are wetlands on the property, but not on the parcel where the array would be built. The property is not in a floodplain and no rare animal species have been found there.
The amount of the decommissioning bond proved to be the sticking point for board members. Member Pierre Duval said he could not recommend the project to the Zoning Board unless he was satisfied that the amount of the bond would be sufficient to ensure that the town would not be on the hook when the project is dismantled.
“Ten years from now, every one of those solar panels could be considered hazardous waste by the EPA,” he said. “It could cost an additional $10 to $15 apiece to dispose of them properly. What covers that? We have no insurance for that. If we go into double digit inflation, there’s nothing to protect the town or landowners.”
The board agreed to submit the decommissioning issue as a separate item for the Zoning Board to consider, and recommended that experts be consulted before a figure is agreed on. The public hearing before the Zoning Board will take place on May 20.
As for the Northeast Solar application, John Peixinho, founder of the Beaver River Valley Community Association, which opposes solar energy projects, said that it would change the rural character of the town. He said he was relieved that the board had decided to recommend that the council deny the application for zoning amendments.
"If adopted, these amendments will promote solar sprawl and threaten Richmond’s rural, scenic character,” Peixinho said.