Johnston solar farm fight reflects RI's dilemma: Green space or green energy?
JOHNSTON – Neighbors of a proposed solar farm spread across more than 300 acres of mostly wooded land in the northwestern part of town scored a significant victory last month when the proposal failed to win Zoning Board approval – a split vote after a marathon meeting that ended at 2:30 a.m.
While opponents won the latest battle, the war may not be over. Green Development, which has invested $2.5 million on the proposal over the last several years to get to this point, is considering an appeal of the board’s decision to Superior Court.
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 their zoning and planning regulations.
Last fall, the City of Warwick passed a six-month moratorium on all ground-mounted solar projects while it updates its ordinances and building codes. The Town of Exeter is in litigation over changing its ordinances in the middle of one of Green Development’s projects. And Coventry negotiated a settlement on a lawsuit filed against the town.
“Nobody here is inherently anti-solar,” said Chris Dibble, whose property is next to one of five parcels where Green wants to install solar panels. The solar farm would be built 200 feet from his property line. “I drive an electric car. We are for solar in appropriate areas. But we felt these areas are not an appropriate place. It’s not right for these companies to come in and try and muscle these towns.”
“The owners of that property are going to do something. If the solar doesn’t go up, there will definitely be houses there,” said Mark DePasquale, who founded Green Development in 2009. It is now the largest company installing wind turbines and solar farms in Rhode Island, with nearly 100 employees.
The specter of housing is echoed by proponents of the project, which include the mayor. Green said that after buying three major parcels for $10 million, it will turn them over to the Johnston Land Trust, which will have control over the land when the project is decommissioned in 20 to 25 years. Green will lease the land from the land trust to build the solar farm. It already owns two of the five parcels.
Green cites legislation pending in the General Assembly that would make it easier for affordable housing to be built in traditional residential zones, and the company warns of the added town services needed to support housing developments.
“I would rather see solar go through than houses,” Mayor Joseph Polisena said, adding that houses result in added town services such as trash pickup, police and fire protection and students in the schools.
But the neighbors who implored the Zoning Board to reject Green’s project said they knew the woods adjacent to their houses might one day be developed. They said they would rather have housing than a total of 90,000 solar panels on the five parcels, some of it former farmland and apple orchards. And they couldn’t stomach the environmental impact of clearing trees to install solar panels.
“I can’t believe that I’m standing here today fighting to not have the town destroy any more than it already is,” Lynn Grissom, a lifelong resident, told the Zoning Board at the meeting on April 28. Grissom cited the Department of Environmental Management’s guidance on solar farms, which “strongly discourages” the clearing of forests to site them. Grissom and several of her neighbors on Rollingwood Drive own homes with thick woods behind them that would be partially cleared under the proposal.
“This is the last area in Johnston that’s not overbuilt and destroyed by the zoning,” Paul Zanecchia, who grew up in the town, told the board that night.
An industry sprouts in Rhode Island
Green Development has grown significantly over the last decade, producing enough electricity from its solar projects in Rhode Island to power 29,250 homes a year.
Three years ago the company moved from a modest office in North Kingstown into the top two floors of a building in Cranston’s Chapel View complex, where Alex and Ani was headquartered in its heyday. From his office on the fifth floor, DePasquale has a clear view of downtown Providence and some of the turbine projects he has completed over the last several years.
One floor up, a bank of video boards shows energy details from each of his wind and solar projects. He also can pull up video of his latest project – a massive solar farm in North Smithfield, the largest so far in Rhode Island.
While Green has been working on the Johnston proposal for several years, the neighbors didn’t hear about it until they began to receive notices about a Planning Board meeting in March. They turned out in full force to watch the board unanimously approve the five-parcel proposal.
The word around town was that the mayor wanted it and board approval was a given. “I didn’t believe a fix was in, but I know the mayor had strongly twisted a lot of arms and it was obvious at the Planning Board meeting that [some members] were clearly trying to advance [Green’s] agenda,” Zanecchia said in an interview last week.
Polisena told The Hummel Report he put no pressure on either of the boards to approve the proposal.
Bonnie Dibble, whose property is next to one of the proposed parcels, posted about the meeting on her Facebook page in March; that started a grassroots mobilization of residents from varying neighborhoods opposed to the project. She began an online petition and five couples chipped in to hire an attorney for the Zoning Board meeting. A GoFundMe page raised $1,500 toward the effort.
“One of the overriding themes here is it takes a group of citizens spending $10,000 to hire an attorney and other experts to fight these guys,” said Chris Dibble, Bonnie's husband. “We can go and stomp our feet and yell but they would approve it unless they had an actual case presented against them. The only way to do that is to hire an attorney. Saying that you don’t meet your ordinances just isn’t good enough.”
The group hired Matthew J. Landry, a veteran land-use lawyer who has experience navigating solar-farm proposals, including projects in Cranston and West Greenwich. The proposal moved from the Planning Board to the Zoning Board, abd Landry asked for a continuance at the March Zoning Board meeting so he could hire experts and put a case together.
“In a massive project like this with large-scale implications townwide … having legal representation to prepare a concise argument and bring in experts to narrow down the legal issues I think is very important,” Landry told The Hummel Report in an interview this month.
Landry said the state passed legislation more than a decade ago giving financial incentives to companies wanting to develop solar projects. But many communities didn’t have language in their ordinances or comprehensive plans addressing the new technology. Some passed moratoriums that sparked legal challenges.
While many communities began rewriting their plans and ordinances, Johnston has not revised its comprehensive plan since 2007. Green’s argument before the Zoning Board: while it doesn’t say you can put in a solar farm in a residential area, it doesn’t say you can’t either.
“They’re basically saying it’s in accordance with the plan because we say it is,” Chris Dibble said.
For Green to go forward with the solar development, the Zoning Board had to grant a special-use permit because the property is zoned residential. And that required approval of a “super majority” – four of the five members needed to vote yes.
Fireworks at a marathon meeting
By the time the April Zoning Board meeting began at 6:45 p.m., more than 100 people had filled a room at the Johnston Senior Center. The hearing got off to a rocky start as several people berated the board, saying the vote to approve was a foregone conclusion. It’s a story that had spread through town, although the board chairman, Thomas Lopardo, later said he had not spoken with the mayor about the proposal. “No one’s ever told me how I had to vote. I wouldn’t do it. I’m not there to be told what to do.”
When one resident began swearing at the board and another would not stop talking, Lopardo called for a five-minute recess. When the meeting resumed, Johnston police officers were stationed in the front and the back of the room.
Green Development’s attorney, John O. Mancini, guided a nearly 3½ hour-presentation, calling on five experts to speak about the proposal. They covered effects on wetlands and landscaping, the broader environment and real estate values. The project manager, Kevin Morin, walked through a 75-slide PowerPoint presentation of the plan, taking questions along the way.
The solar farms would be located on five parcels spread over 325 acres in the northern part of town; the designated solar area would take up 40% of the property and the panels themselves about 16%. The 90,000 panels would power 5,400 homes a year.
As Green finished its presentation, well after 10 p.m., Zanecchia, a lawyer whose mother still lives in the house he grew up in on Hopkins Avenue, implored the board to continue the meeting to another night. He said he had spoken with Lopardo and Joseph Ballirano, the board’s attorney, during a break. “We all know the longer these things go, people have to leave. That’s always to the advocates’ advantage,” Zanecchia said later in an interview.
The board voted to suspend its rules calling for a 10:30 curfew and plow on. No one knew at the time they’d be there another four hours.
Lopardo later explained: “I didn’t think it was fair to make all of those people come back again and make all of those experts come back again. No one knew it was going to go that long. Once we got going, it’s like you’re halfway across the river. You can’t really turn back.”
Landry’s case took nearly two hours and included two experts who said the plan was inconsistent with the area and not in the best interests of the residents, something the town's comprehensive plan requires for a special-use permit. It was the exact opposite of what one of Green’s experts had testified.
Ballirano, the board’s attorney, got into an extended – and animated – exchange with one of Landry’s witnesses, after asking no questions of the Green presenters. That drew a sharp response from the audience.
“This is outrageous,” Zanecchia shouted at Ballirano. “You’re here as legal counsel to the board. You’re not here to ask questions of this expert!”
Ballirano asked the witness: “Am I being unfair?"
Landry stepped in, saying: “I think it’s highly irregular, this type of dialogue. It’s appropriate for the board members to inquire of this expert; I’m happy to have any board member ask questions as voting members.”
Ballirano told The Hummel Report last week that he was doing his job as the board’s attorney for the past 15 years; he also said he'd had no contact with Polisena about the proposal.
“I’ve taken 10 appeals (of Zoning Board decisions) to Superior Court,” he said. “Every single judge told me the same thing: This is on you. You don’t have the opportunity to develop the record, you have the obligation to develop the record. When two experts in planning say the 100% exact opposite thing, the board needs help in gaining information to form an opinion as to which expert to side with or lean on a little bit more than another.”
'My quality of life is over as far as me sitting in my backyard'
The public finally got its chance after 12:30 a.m. While some people had left, the vast majority of the dozens who arrived six hours earlier remained; 16 people addressed the board, none speaking in favor of the project. Some talked about environmental concerns – wondering what might leach into the ground and affect their wells; one woman worried about the potential for added groundwater and flooding once the land is cleared.
Ray D’Amico’s backyard would be the closest to one of the solar arrays. “My quality of life is over as far as me sitting in my backyard,” he said. “I’m going to be sitting out there hearing the buzz. I’m probably the worst one in this whole thing.”
Green didn’t directly address D’Amico’s concerns, only saying it would be within the town’s noise limit – 60 decibels. D’Amico showed the board on a plat map how close his property would be to the solar farm.
Some wondered if the solar panels would ever be decommissioned. Chris Dibble said a lot can change over two decades. “It would not be out of line for the state, on behalf of National Grid, to roll out eminent domain and say we can’t afford to lose this [power] from the grid and we’re going to pay to replace the panels and they’ll be here for another 40 years. How do you know that’s not going to happen?”
The meeting went so late that one of the board members, who has a heart condition and is on a strict medication regimen, went home at 1:15 a.m. because he was having chest pains and feeling lightheaded.
At 2:15, with all of the testimony concluded, it was time for a vote. The board’s vice chairman, Anthony Pilozzi, commended both sides for their presentations and made a motion to approve, drawing groans from the audience. Lopardo, the chairman, called for a second to the motion; 27 seconds passed before Lopardo, looking right and left and hearing nothing, jumped in, saying: “I’ll second it, let’s have a vote.”
Richard Fascia and Richard Lobello both voted no, and Lopardo, Pilozzi and alternate Dennis Cardillo, who had replaced the member who went home with chest pains, voted yes. When it became apparent the board did not have enough votes to pass with a supermajority, the crowd erupted in applause.
One 'no' vote: Green lacked answers
Fascia, in an interview last week, told The Hummel Report: “In my opinion they failed to make a compelling case that this was in the best interest in the people of Johnston.”
Fascia has been a member of the Zoning Board for 17 of the 26 years he’s lived in Johnston. He said Green has gotten approval from the board on other solar proposals in town. “In each case, no abutters came forward to speak out against the project,” Fascia said, adding that he was swayed by the number of people who stayed to the end of the meeting.
Fascia said he didn’t like that Green did not have answers for some basic questions he had, like what the batteries on the solar panels would be made of. “Were they going to be nickel-cadmium, lithium? They just simply did not come prepared with answers that are necessary to make an educated decision.
“In the end, the board is an instrument of the people, and it’s our job to look at it from all sides objectively, and I just could not fathom [voting for approval] when it could affect all of those abutting neighbors. They all have wells, they all have property values that could conceivably be depleted.”
Lopardo defended his vote to approve, “A lot of people who testified were for solar,” the chairman said. “The way it was presented to me, this was going to be a solar field temporarily, but the land was being deeded back to the town and it was to be [open] in perpetuity. If we got a lot of construction and housing up there, potentially it would be maybe even more disruptive to the surroundings than a passive solar farm.”
Landry, the opponents’ attorney, said: “I think the public won, frankly. The best outcome possible is what transpired at that meeting. The public came out in droves, they were against the project from the beginning. They were passionate. The public forum was successful in this case against a project that would have wide, sweeping impacts on the community.”
'It's my job to try and slow ... global warming'
DePasquale will have 20 days to appeal once the Zoning Board certifies the April vote. Would he pull the plug on a $160-million project that he's already sunk $2.5 million into? “We’re going to wait to see what the transcript says,” he said. “Before you can determine if there’s something to appeal, you have to look at what they did that night. I will listen to my legal staff. If they said to me (the Zoning Board made a mistake) and by right you should have (gained approval in) this vote, then I don’t stop.”
He said he will also consult with the owners of the properties. Green has a purchase and sale agreement and is paying the owners of the parcels a monthly fee during the approval process. In several cases the owners are aging and want to sell now.
DePasquale said he is committed to bringing renewable energy to Rhode Island.
“When you look at what we’re doing, I believe in what we do. That’s all I do now [renewable energy],” said DePasquale, who has a background in construction. “It’s my job to try and slow down the global warming that’s happening. Everybody wants to have their lights, but you have to make changes. And people just don’t want to make changes and are stubborn. “
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.