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JOHNSTON - After beating back a developer’s attempt in 2022 to build a massive solar farm spread across 300 acres of residential property, neighbors find themselves fighting a revised plan that has played out in zoning hearings over multiple evenings since September.

More than 150 people have packed the Johnston Senior Center each night of an ongoing hearing to oppose an altered proposal by Green Development of Cranston. The new plan calls for a 19-megawatt solar farm on 158 acres of heavily wooded land in the northwestern part of town.

Opponents endured eight hours of testimony by the developers and experts hired by the neighbors over three nights before getting their chance to speak last month. One by one, they came forward to tell the Zoning Board the effect the project would have on their quality of life and property values.

They included a college student who had driven back to Rhode Island during final exams to testify before the board and a nervous elderly woman whose daughter stood next to her for support while she spoke. No one testified in favor of the project.

Green needs a special use permit from the town in order to build in a residential zone.

“My only question is: Where is the hardship?,” asked Raymond Arruda of Rollingwood Drive, one of two dozen people who addressed the Zoning Board on the third lengthy night of testimony in December.

 “You come to zoning with a hardship,” Arruda said. “There is a request for a special use permit. If it was a permitted use none of us would be here for the last two years. The applicant is a for-profit company, they’re trying to buy an empty piece of land, and they’re trying to make money. Where is the hardship? There isn’t one.”

The Johnston project is a microcosm of the skirmishes being waged in communities across Rhode Island, with the push for renewable energy bumping up against questions of where solar farms - and wind turbines - should be located. And it’s forced communities to figure out how to address the emerging technology in its zoning and planning regulations. Johnston’s outdated comprehensive plan, last revised in 2007, does not mention solar energy.

Green’s original proposal failed to gain approval in April 2022, even though there was a 3-to-2 vote in favor, because at the time the developers needed a 4-to-1 “supermajority” for a special use permit. That hearing, which began at 6:30 p.m. on April 28,  lasted until 2:30 a.m. the next morning, detailed in a Hummel Report investigation published in The Providence Sunday Journal in May 2022. One of the zoning board members had to leave early because he was having chest pains, forcing an alternate to take his place for the vote.

The Rhode Island General Assembly has since changed the law, allowing only a simple majority for approval on a special use permit. (Green has appealed the 2022 rejection of the five parcels it planned to develop to the Rhode Island Supreme Court; that case is pending).

Another factor: one of the Johnston Zoning Board members who voted against Green’s plan in 2022 has been replaced by the Town Council. A year ago, the council refused to consider - or even discuss - a proposal that would prohibit large-scale solar developments in all residential areas of town.

Johnston’s Mayor Joseph Polisena Jr, like his father who preceded him as mayor,  says he supports a solar farm over potential housing in that part of town.

Green’s owner, Mark DePasquale, said it could have taken another year or two to get a decision from the state Supreme Court on his original proposal, so he scaled down the plan. “We listened to all the people and dropped a few projects off,” he told The Hummel Report in an interview on Monday, adding that even if he got approval today, it would be 2028 before the project came online.

 

This time around, the Zoning Board set a 10 p.m. curfew for each night of the hearing, which began Sept. 28.

When opponents finally got their turn last month they hammered away, asking why they had to go through this process again when town ordinances require a developer to wait two years before coming back for approval of a project unless the proposal was “materially and substantially different than the last application.”

Specifically, the project has been revised from 24 megawatts to 19 and would be located on the largest of the five parcels presented in the original application two years ago.

David Amalfitano of Rollingwood Drive said the application “should be rejected here, based on not following the Johnston code,” adding that either the Town Council or Zoning Board had to vote to accept the new proposal based on significant changes, which he said was not done.

Zoning Board Chairman Thomas Lopardo said the town’s planning director, Thomas Deller, approved the application and put it on the zoning board agenda. Deller had attended the September and November meeting, but did not go to the December meeting where the opponents spoke.

“So we just blindly accepted this application with no backup?” Amalfitano asked?

“ I believe it went through (Deller).” Lopardo said. “Unfortunately he’s not here this evening.”

Deller, in an email to The Hummel Report said that he “had a family issue that needed to be addressed.”

 

Green’s experts talked about the company’s plans to provide buffering and other mitigations to lessen the effect on neighbors, often drawing groans and boos from those in attendance. There were several testy exchanges between the attorney, Mancini, and the crowd. At one point he said,  “I get paid by the hour, I can stay here as long as you want.”

During the December meeting, with the crowd antsy to begin its own testimony and jeering him during an extended answer to a question from the board, Mancini replied: “I’m going to take a five minute recess every time there’s a disturbance to reassess my questions. Because it’s interrupting.”

Mathew Landry, an attorney hired by the residents, countered Green’s assertion that the Zoning Board was hearing a brand new proposal when he began putting his case on during the November meeting.

“This application has been heard, it has been decided upon, it has been denied and it has been pending appeal for the last year,” Landry said. “You can’t just take away a couple of (solar) panels, say it’s different and do this all over again.”

Landry said there was only a 5% reduction of lot/panel coverage in the new proposal.  “They’re focusing on the reduction of the megawatts; they claim it’s a 20 percent reduction. You should be looking at how big this facility is, the infrastructure, equipment and  lot coverage.”

 

Mancini was not the only one to draw the audience’s ire. The Zoning Board’s longtime legal counsel, Joseph Baillarano, scrolled through his cell phone for much of the 2 1/1 hours the residents came forward to speak. At other times, he engaged in lengthy - and occasionally animated - conversations with Board Chairman Thomas Lopardo, while Landry’s experts and the residents testified.

Joseph Houle, a real estate expert hired by Landry, at one point stopped speaking when the conversation between Lopardo and Ballirano became distracting. When they realized the room had fallen silent and looked up, Houle said, “I can wait.”

It happened again during the December meeting when a neighbor was testifying. Raymond D’Amico, seated near the front, shouted, “You guys are talking, that is so rude. He’s been waiting to talk for three meetings and you guys are talking.”

Lopardo responded: “(Ballirano) is the attorney. He’s advising me.”

“Then let (the neighbor) stop talking,” D’Amico shot back. “I can’t shut up - it’s freaking rude,” he added, drawing extended applause from the audience.

 

Several neighbors expressed concern about the effect a new solar farm sited over so many acres would have on the water table, and subsequent runoff.

Christine McIntyre-Hannon said that her house has water in the basement for eight months of the year because of a zoning variance that allowed two houses, instead of one, to be built next to hers on Greenville Avenue.

“What the hell is going to happen when you clear that much land higher up from me?” she said. “To destroy that much forest acreage in the name of saving the environment is ridiculous, especially when we have so much cleared available land in our town for such projects.”

Others spoke about what they perceived as a double standard. Ralph Martinelli of Hopkins Avenue said: “I tried to put a slab down so I could put a car on it and I was told I couldn’t do it because I was in a watershed. (Green comes) along and there’s going to be a big slab right in the back of my property, concrete…and they can do it. I don’t understand it. I’ve been here for 20 years.”

Councilman Robert Civetti, whose district includes the proposed solar farm, presented the board with a petition signed by 700 people opposing the project.

Green’s proposal says it would give the town nearly 83 acres when construction of the solar farm is complete, retaining 75 acres for the project. That remaining property would be given to the town for open space when the solar farm is decommissioned - approximately 25 years after it goes online.

Several neighbors wanted to know if the town would be responsible for any collateral damage from the project since it would own the land.

 “All the water from these projects will flow down the hill to my house,” said Paul Scopelliti, whose property on Winsor Avenue is 40 feet from the project.  “Who is going to be responsible when my basement floods?

“You want to put an industrial solar array in a residential neighborhood. We move to these neighborhoods to get away from this. I don’t want to spend $7,000 a year in town taxes to live in an industrial solar project.”

Joseph Nunes said he is the newest abutter to the project, having moved to Johnston last February  with his wife and two daughters, 10 months after the original proposal failed. “After a year of searching we found our dream home in a neighborhood we never knew existed,” Nunes said.

“We moved here to get away from city living, we moved to this town for all it had to offer and the neighborhood. And we absolutely love it. Very shortly after arriving we learned of the resurrection of the solar farm. What a slap in the face.”

Nunes said he was aware that the wooded property behind them was zoned residential and that housing might be built there one day. “We moved to a neighborhood and expected neighbors. We welcome that with open arms.”

Other opponents warned the Zoning Board about doing business with Green Development, which has taken legal action against other communities that have rejected its proposal.

McIntyre-Hannon said: “This is not a business partner our town can afford, or would be proud of in the future.”

 

Chris Dibble said he found that out firsthand last year. Dibble, and his wife Bonnie, have been vocal opponents of Green’s proposal, and members of the group Stop Johnston Solar that hired Landry to present its case before the board.

The Dibbles bought their two-story house at the end of Harilla Lane in 2019, adjacent to property Green owns and plans to use for a transmission line if the solar project goes through. Chris Dibble had been spending an increasing amount of time each month commuting to North Carolina for his job.

Last spring the couple decided to move there and put their Johnston house on the market. Although it wasn’t the prime reason, Dibble said the battle the neighbors had to wage for the first proposal factored into their decision to move and get a fresh start. Bonnie now commutes back to Rhode Island for her job and arranged her schedule to attend the three Zoning Board meetings last fall.

Within a week of listing the  three-bedroom home on a cul-de-sac surrounded by woods in April 2023, an elderly couple from Newport put in a cash offer for the full asking price - $575,000 - saying they loved the location and seclusion.

The Dibbles had told their real estate agent about the solar proposal, but the project had not won approval a year earlier and there was nothing pending. Chris said the couple wanted to go through with the purchase anyway.

The day of the home inspection, Dibble said Green offloaded commercial tree cutting equipment and put up a solar powered camera on a pole at the end of their driveway so DePasquale could watch the equipment and the house. That prompted a panicked phone call from the real estate agent.

“It was a huge flex,” Dibble said. “If you were going to remove a forest you’d offload this equipment.”

DePasquale’s crew cleared out a wide swath of trees surrounding the Dibbles’ house. The buyers had not visited the property for weeks. The night before the closing, they drove to Johnston to look at the property. Dibble said when they saw the cleared land surrounding the house, the wife was in tears.

They pulled out of the deal, but the Dibbles were already under contract to buy a home in North Carolina. They approached DePasquale, who months ago had talked about wanting to buy the house.. “They had us over a barrel,” Chris Dibble said.

They went back and forth, finally settling on a sale price of $485,000 - $90,000 less than the initial offer from the Newport couple. DePasquale denies that he timed the tree cutting to tank the deal, saying the property adjacent to the Dibbles’ house would carry the transmission line if the solar project is approved and that he needed to dig “test pits.”

DePasquale said he is renting out the Dibbles’ house - and one he owns across the street - to  Green Development employees who were happy to move out of Providence.

 

At the December meeting, the residents called for a vote when the board ended the public testimony. Mancini said he wanted to order transcripts of their testimony so he could respond to it in January, drawing howls from the audience.

“You’ve heard enough,” one person shouted. “Vote now.”

The board that night decided to continue the hearing to the last Thursday in January - so it could hear closing arguments and potentially take a vote. After that meeting, the attorneys talked about a schedule that would allow for more legal presentation and culminate with a vote at a later date.

The neighbors vow to be there every step of the way, including Dibble, who has monitoring events from 700 miles aways.

 “As much as we want to wash ourselves of this, we still care about what’s going on up there,” he said in a phone interview last week. “We think it matters and this has an impact on people’s lives.”

The Hummel Report is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that relies, in part, on donations. For more information, go to HummelReport.org. Reach Jim at Jim@HummelReport.org.

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