RICHMOND — The Town Council has approved amendments to the solar energy ordinance that will prohibit the construction of commercial solar energy facilities in all residential zones.
Approved at a public hearing Tuesday, the first amendment would “make commercial solar energy system [sic] a prohibited use in the R-3 zoning district and would give the Planning Board the authority to require complete screening of accessory solar energy systems.”
The second amendment eliminates provisions in the ordinance that allowed developers who wished to build solar facilities in residential zones to apply for special use permits.
The revised ordinance will call for the complete visual screening of solar energy systems in other zones, including general business, light industrial and industrial zones. The town will also require peer reviews of all decommissioning plans, at the applicants’ expense, and a review of the amount of the decommissioning bond.
Before the amendments, commercial solar arrays were permitted, with conditions, as accessory uses on farms of 10 acres or greater.
The section of the amended ordinance pertaining to farms will give the Planning Board the authority to require the owner of the solar array to screen it, either partially or entirely, with a vegetative buffer.
The council deliberation was brief, and concluded with a unanimous vote to approve the amendments. Council President Richard Nassaney said he was pleased that developers would no longer be able to apply for special use permits to circumvent residential zoning restrictions.
“It’s going to keep our town safer,” he said. “It’s going to keep our town looking more rural and it will eliminate the loopholes of people just to benefit themselves and not our town.”
John Peixinho, founder of the Beaver River Valley Community Association, a citizens' group that opposes commercial solar installations in residential zones, commended council members for passing the amendments.
“They have proven that they are keenly aware of the importance of preserving and protecting the rural quality of our town, its scenic vistas and cultural landscapes, and that they are not afraid to take swift action,” he said. “Keeping commercially-scaled solar installations in commercially-zoned areas is a win for everyone.”
Town Administrator Karen Pinch reported that a meeting last week with officials from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management had failed to dissuade the agency from its plan to demolish the lodge on the DeCoppet estate. Representing the town, in addition to Pinch, were council President Richard Nassaney and Town Planner Shaun Lacey.
The 1,825-acre property, which the state has re-named the Hillsdale Preserve Management Area, was bequeathed by Theakston DeCoppet, who not only donated the land, but also left $20,000 per year for the preservation and care of the property.
Residents were displeased when Pinch informed them that the DEM had declined to send a representative to the council meeting to answer their questions and that officials at last week's meeting — Megan DiPrete, chief of planning and development, and Cathy Sparks, assistant director of the bureau of natural resources — said the lodge, which was built in 1912, would be too expensive to repair and would have to come down.
“They said the building suffers from lead, mold and asbestos, all of which would need to be abated,” Pinch said. “They said there’s issues with animals in there now. They also cited staffing concerns. They’re down to a percentage, they said, of the employees that they’ve had in past years.”
Still smarting from the DEM initiative to build a multimillion-dollar natural resources headquarters and welcome center on Browning Pond, a project that DEM still intends to build, residents asked what the agency had done with the $20,000 per year that DeCoppet had left for the maintenance of the property. Someone had also offered to live in the lodge and be its caretaker, but the offer had been refused.
“If this gentleman left a huge estate with money to take care of it, why didn’t they take care of it?” one woman asked.
“Their interpretation of the will is that it’s not the actual building but the land that the gentleman is referring to,” Nassaney said, referring to DeCoppet’s will. “… It didn’t really matter what the public wanted. It was the state’s land. The state’s going to do what the state wants to do with it, and they’re going to get rid of the building.”
Several residents asked what they could do to prevent the demolition, which is expected to take place in about a year after historic and valuable items have been salvaged from the building. Council members encouraged them to voice their opinions to the DEM.
“This is a real hot-button issue,” Nassaney said. “The community has to step up and force their will upon the state because the town has no authority whatsoever.”