RICHMOND — The Planning Board issued a negative advisory opinion Tuesday on an application for a special use permit to allow the construction of a 5.3 megawatt solar energy system in a residential zone on Beaver River Road.
Nancy Hess, the vice chair, made the motion. The opinion will go to the Zoning Board, the next body that will hear the application.
“It is not consistent with the comprehensive plan,” Hess said. “I think it will significantly change and endanger the character of a very unique neighborhood in the community. I also make that recommendation because I do not believe it's compliant with the general purposes of the zoning ordinance.”
Hess also noted that the town’s solar ordinance requires that facilities be located entirely within a 2-mile radius of a National Grid substation and that a portion of the proposed project is outside the radius.
Richard Millar, the lone dissenter on the seven-member board, said he could not support the motion because he believed farmers should be able to supplement their incomes.
“These people want to stay there,” he said. “You notice a lot of the farm applications are for solar panels and that’s to supplement their regular income so they can stay in farming.”
The property in question is owned by William Stamp III, who lives in Cranston.
Submitted by GD Beaver River I LLC, which is owned by Green Development of North Kingstown, the proposal was amended in response to questions from board members when the advisory plan review began on Sept. 11.
An archaeological study, done by Gregory Walwer of ACS Archaeological Consulting Services of Connecticut, found few prehistoric materials, indicating that the neighborhood was not settled by native peoples and was likely used for hunting.
The historic significance of the land is more noteworthy.
“Instead of being broadly distributed, the great majority of materials were found within 45 meters of the road. Naturally, it tends to be radiating, decreasing density of historic materials away from historic structures … So we define the site area as the large rectangle that you can see,” he said, indicating a large, marked section on the map.
The area, Walter explained, was once used for growing crops, then in dairy farming, then potatoes, and finally, other crops such as turf.
“So you have the potential to explore and understand changes in agricultural economics of the area that you might not find in history books,” he said.
Project engineer Kevin Morin followed with explanations of amendments to the plan, including moving the array and its vegetated buffer back from the newly defined historic "preservation" area, which includes a house that may at one time have been a mill.
“We bumped out the solar to the beginning of the northern end of the preservation area,” he said. “Originally, we had plantings in this 25-foot zone, right off the property line. What we did is, we pulled back close to 58 feet, and then plantings, fence and further buffering to the solar, so we’re about 75 feet at the closest to the solar at the north and the south side of this preservation area.”
The increased setbacks would mean that trees and shrubs along the road, once slated for removal, would remain, since they would be too far from the array to shade the solar panels.
Board members continued to express concerns about the placement of the oil-filled transformers and inverters, which were originally on the side nearest the Beaver River. John Mancini, who is representing the developer, said his client would be willing to move equipment and underground wires to the side nearest the road.
Town Solicitor Karen Ellsworth advised members to document their recommendations for changes to the proposed plan, because the Zoning Board might disagree with the Planning Board’s recommendation and approve it.
“What you’re doing is, you’re recommending to the Zoning Board that it does not comply with the comprehensive plan and the zoning ordinance, but that’s just a recommendation. They don’t have to follow it,” she said. “If they don’t want to follow it and they decide to grant the special use permit, then they look to your decision to see what conditions they should put on it.”
Members agreed that one of the conditions should be a landscaping bond, which would be $14,000 in addition to the $139,000 the developer would spend on buffer plants. The bond would ensure that the plantings would be maintained for three years. They also agreed that the developer should move the equipment away from the river to the less ecologically sensitive side bordering the road.