RICHMOND — Members of the Town Council have denied an application by Richmond Realty Associates LLC of North Providence for a zoning ordinance amendment to allow the construction of a commercial solar array on the Richmond Commons property.
The vote, during a public hearing Tuesday, was 3 to 2 in favor of a motion to deny the application, with council Vice President James Palmisciano, Richard Nassaney and Ronald Newman supporting the denial and council President Nell Carter and councilor Lauren Cacciola opposed to the motion.
The Planning Board issued a negative advisory opinion to the council at its Nov. 24 meeting. The lure of tax revenue from the solar project from the large, vacant parcel has been outweighed by concerns that amending the zoning would open the door to commercial solar projects on other properties.
The Planned Unit Development-Village Center zone in which the Richmond Commons property is located was approved in 2002 to support the mixed-use development approved by the town. There are four parcels, including Richmond Commons, within PUD-VC zones, which do not permit commercial solar developments.
The original plans for the Richmond Commons property, located off Route 138, called for nearly 400 housing units and 700,000 square feet of retail and office space. However, the proposed plan failed to attract tenants and the land has remained vacant.
Richmond Realty was seeking approval for a commercial solar energy facility, which would be designed and built by BlueWave Solar of Boston and occupy 60 to 70 acres of the 300-acre property.
Referring several times to the property, a former gravel bank, as a “moonscape,” representatives for the developer presented their plans. BlueWave Chief Executive Officer Trevor Hardy said the solar project, which would be largely hidden behind the ridge that faces Route 138, would not only generate tax revenue but could be a catalyst to attract mixed-use development.
“We see a tremendous amount of potential benefit to the town,” he said. “We believe that solar as a use can be very complementary to the plan that was initially made, which is now almost 10 years old and unfortunately, not much has happened …. We really believe that pushing renewable power can act as a catalyst to spur additional development.”
Joshua Lariscy, also of BlueWave, noted that the project would involve infrastructure improvements which would make the site more attractive to developers.
“One of the things that would be of benefit to the Commons would be our ability to expand the access road, improve its quality up to a point where it would then be able to be utilized in the Commons development,” he said.
Former council member B. Joseph Reddish said the property had been languishing too long and the town needed to kickstart development.
But others, like Nassaney, said the Richmond Commons property would not be appropriate for solar and should be built in industrial-zoned areas instead.
“Those solar panels and that energy field could be put into those industrial pieces of property,” he said. “Why wouldn’t you put it there? This is a planned use development piece of property that the town has decided that it wants to develop, not put solar on.”
Palmisciano said the town had envisioned, and approved, the Richmond Commons site as a mixed-use development and suggested that a commercial solar project should come after the rest of the site has been developed, not before.
“I would like to see development start on the site and see Richmond Commons start to come to fruition and then have a conversation about how we can put integrated solar into that property, but I think we’re thinking of it backwards, because we have a perceived need or an opportunity to do it now,” he said. “I just think we’re thinking of it in the reverse order.”
Carpenter and Cacciola said they supported the application, citing the town’s need for additional tax revenue which would initially total $100,000 and grow in ensuing years.
“I know that this town has a huge history of not wanting solar panels, but we do have to look at Richmond’s economic state,” Cacciola said. “We’ve lost quite few businesses. We don’t have a lot of businesses in town, and this could generate a lot of money for Richmond’s residents, and energy, which we all need. They seem like they have a feasible solution to covering the solar fields. I just think it would be not wise, for this situation, to deny the solar fields.”
Carpenter added before the 3-2 vote that scuttled the proposal: “We’ve waited a long time for something to happen there. Although I believe what you say, Jim [Palmisciano], this is not a certainty that development is going to follow, but what this is is something that we currently don’t have now.”