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JOHNSTON – In an unexpected twist, the town’s Zoning Board voted unanimously Thursday night to reject a controversial proposal by Green Development of Cranston to locate a 158-acre solar farm in a heavily wooded part of the northern end of town.

A stunned audience of nearly 150 people, most of whom had endured more than 10 hours of testimony over three nights dating to September, listened as the board’s vice chairman, Anthony Pilozzi, made a motion to deny – 21 months after he had made a motion to approve a similar proposal by Green.

That board voted 3-2 in 2022 to approve, but at the time the developer needed a 4-1 “supermajority” for approval, so the proposal died. Green then appealed the decision to the Rhode Island Supreme Court. Since then, state law has changed to allow a simple majority for a special-use permit, which Green needs in Johnston to a build the solar farm in a residential zone.

Green returned to Johnston with a new proposal last summer.

Rejection greeted by applause

After Pilozzi spent seven minutes outlining his reasons to reject the special-use permit, Chairman Thomas Lopardo quickly called for a second, then a vote, without asking for any further discussion from the board.

The audience, which gathered hastily at the Johnston Senior Center after word spread throughout town during the day that there might be a vote, broke into loud and extended applause. Many congratulated Matthew Landry, an attorney opponents had hired to rebut the case presented by Green’s experts on both applications.

The latest in a long solar farm saga

The Hummel Report first detailed Green’s proposal in April 2022, which played out in a marathon hearing that concluded at 2:30 a.m. (eight hours after it began) with the failed vote to approve. Our follow-up investigation published in last week’s Providence Sunday Journal recapped testimony from the three meetings leading up to Thursday’s vote.

“I appreciate that the lawyers want to do fancy memos and closing arguments, but to be frank, I’ve reviewed the transcripts, taken notes, prepared to make a motion this evening,” Pilozzi said at the outset of his remarks.

Green’s attorney John O. Mancini had asked the board when the public hearing concluded in December for an opportunity to order and review transcripts of the opponents’ testimony, bring in rebuttal witnesses, then have closing arguments. That could have stretched a decision until March or April.

“We’ve heard 10 hours of testimony from experts and neighbors, and some fancy closing argument is not going to change that,” Pilozzi added.

Neighbors in December questioned how Green was allowed to return with a proposal that was similar to the one the board rejected in 2022, when the town’s code says an applicant cannot return for two years after a denial unless there is a substantial change in the proposal.

Landry and his witnesses told the board in December that Green’s proposal was only a slight modification and should never have been heard.

Pilozzi, and the rest of the board, agreed.

“Although the matter was placed on our agenda by [Town Planner Thomas Deller] for our consideration, our zoning ordinance [gives us] the task of determining whether the application being considered after a previous application has been denied less than two years ago, was substantially and materially changed so that it could be heard one year after the previous denial instead of two.”

Pilozzi said the testimony showed that there was not a significant change.

This is a developing story and will be updated.

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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