RICHMOND — In a public hearing that lasted more than three hours, members of the Zoning Board heard testimony both for and against a commercial solar array that would be built in a field in the rural Beaver River Valley neighborhood.
The applicant, GD Beaver River I LLC, owned by Green Development of Cranston, is requesting a special-use permit to allow the construction of a 5.3-megawatt solar energy system in a residential zone at 172 Beaver River Road. The facility would occupy about 7 acres of a 41-acre agricultural property owned by William Stamp III of Cranston.
At issue is whether the project is compatible with the town's Comprehensive Plan.
Consisting mainly of a fallow field, the property is bordered to the west by Beaver River Road and to the east by the Beaver River. The river is part of the Pawcatuck River watershed, which recently received a Wild and Scenic designation from the federal government. The Beaver River Valley Agricultural District is also currently under consideration for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places.
Monday’s hearing followed two years of procedural wrangling between the town and Green Development which began in 2018 when zoning official Russell Brown denied the application because not all of the facility would be located within two miles of an electrical substation, a requirement of the zoning ordinance at the time.
(A zoning amendment passed after Brown’s determination requires that solar energy facilities be situated entirely within a two-mile radius of a substation.)
The developer appealed the town’s decision to Rhode Island Superior Court, which sent the case back to the Zoning Board.
In addition to a large group of residents who asked to testify at the hearing, speakers included the developer’s attorney, John Mancini, Richmond Town Solicitors Karen Ellsworth and Michael Cozzolino and attorney Kelley Fracassa, representing Beaver River Valley resident and project opponent, John Peixinho.
Considerable time was spent discussing the differences between the ordinance under which Green Development had applied for the special-use permit and the amended ordinance.
Town Planner Shaun Lacey explained that the original ordinance required that a solar energy system be located within two miles of an electrical substation. In May 2018, the ordinance was amended to require that the entire lot on which the solar array is located be within two miles of a substation.
Brown testified that he had felt that the application did not comply with the old ordinance.
Testimony from residents and others
Several abutters and other Richmond residents urged the Zoning Board to deny the application, warning that even with vegetative screening, the panels would be visible, ruining the rural character of the valley.
“I can tell you this with great certainty, abutter Kim Bissonnette said, “If the project was up and running, we wouldn’t have bought this house.”
Others pointed to problems with previously completed Green Development projects.
Gail Tibbits, whose family’s home is just 40 feet from the site, said she did not trust the developer to keep his promises to the town.
“Neither the developer nor the landowner lives in Richmond, so why should they care what happens to us?” She said. “The Stamps and Green Development do not care about anything but their pocketbooks and they will destroy our way of life for profit.”
Testifying in support of the application was Gina Thurn of Exeter who worked with Green Development to allow a solar project on her land that left spaces between the solar panels for growing crops.
Thurn, whose farm has been featured in videos and other materials produced by Green Development, described solar energy as a “lifeline” for farmers and admonished residents for wanting to preserve rural character for its own sake.
“Many people have stated that solar arrays in a residential neighborhood undermine the rural character of the town, thus going against the comprehensive plan, however, they forget that farms were running businesses in this areas long before they were designated residential,” she said. “It is the farms that created this rural character in the first place.”
Thurn testified at length in favor of the application a second time, but was denied a third submission.
Valley resident and farmer Alan Kinsley, who opposes the project, reminded residents and board members of Thurn’s association with Green Development.
“I am scared out of my mind every day that I’m going to lose everything I own because I’m trying to do something good for this community and save open space and actively farm this land, but yet, I still do that without the help of outside money from solar who has several times come over here and wanted to take my pasture away from me," he said. "I just want to make sure that everyone knows that she is speaking on behalf of Green Energy [Development].”
Peixinho, founder of the group, the Beaver River Valley Citizen’s Association, said at the conclusion of Monday’s hearing that the testimony had demonstrated that the project was not compatible with the town’s comprehensive land use plan.
“I feel that my attorney, the town’s attorney and the zoning official all provided irrefutable evidence that the proposed solar energy system is not compatible with Richmond’s zoning ordinances or Comprehensive Land use Plan — and doesn’t belong on Beaver River Road,” he said. “The Zoning Board members were focused, informed and on-point. But what really struck me was the number of residents, many abutters, who testified against this application and its potential impact on our rural community.”
Board members voted to consider a decision on the application at their next meeting on Feb. 22.