NORTH SMITHFIELD – It’s a little like giving with one hand and taking away with the other.
Last Thursday, July 16, the North Smithfield Planning Board voted 3-2 to approve the first round of plans for a nine-megawatt solar farm on property owned by David Gold.
At the same time, board members vote 4-1 to urge the Town Council to reject a proposed land swap that project representatives have described as an intricate part of the project.
The votes came after several weeks of debate about the proposal, which would involve developing approximately 32 acres of panels off Mattity Road. As part of the project, about 76 acres of land would be turned over the town, which in turn would agree to lease the solar portion to Rhode Island Renewable Energy for a 25- to 30-year period.
At the end of the project, the town would have full control of all the land.
The proposal has sparked serious debate about conservation and whether preserving a larger parcel in the long run warrants allowing a smaller portion to be developed in the short-term. In particular, residents have raised concerns that the project will destroy a series of wooded trails on the property in exchange for public access to two water bodies and other sections of the land.
On Thursday, Christopher Simpkins, an abutter to the property who’s also running for Town Council, raised another concern. As part of the project, the town would have to agree to remove a conservation easement that was placed on 10 acres of the property at the request of the Gold family in the 1990s. In exchange, the town could place a conservation easement on the portion of the property that’s not being used for solar panels.
Reading from the legal document that created the easement, Simpkins listed off the activities currently prohibited on the 10-acre section. They include construction, tree clearing, chemicals, pesticides, excavation and damaging of wildlife habitats.
“The development that we’re talking about here will violate every single one of those restrictions, sometimes in multiple ways,” he said.
“If the town says that the conservation designation can be nullified to make way for development and simply swapped for different land, then is that new conservation land really worth anything? Do we want to set a precedent that the conservation easement is essentially meaningless?”
According to John Mancini, the attorney representing the solar company, only the Town Council has the authority to remove that conservation easement and place it somewhere else. The new conservation land would in theory be held by the town in perpetuity, though Simpkins pointed out that following that logic, the town could again decide to swap out the easement when another opportunity arose.
“Apparently, perpetuity has limits, since the conservation land being discussed here was also held in perpetuity,” he said.
Board members raised other concerns about the project, staking out their positions on the conservation issue. While members Megan Staples and Jeffrey Porter were opposed, member Richard Keene expressed his support, pointing out a denial could push the landowner to bring a housing development into the area.
It was member David Punchak who asked whether the board could approve the project but ask the Town Council to deny the conservation land swap, effectively removing those 10 acres from the proposal. Mancini said the developer had no plans of reducing the project and considered it an all-inclusive proposal.
“We’ve designed a nine-megawatt project. We can’t go down to a six-megawatt project, we can’t go down to a seven-megawatt project,” he said.
“If it’s a denial, it’s a denial, but we can’t revise it,” he added. “The conservation swap is an intricate part of the proposal, as is the additional acreage that we’ve provided you.”
Despite this, board members went ahead with the idea. They voted 3-2 to approve the project’s master plan application, with Chairman Gary Palardy voting in favor, and voted along the same lines to recommend the project to the Zoning Board.
When it came to the Town Council recommendation, however, Palardy and Punchak joined Staples and Porter in asking the council not to grant the removal of the conservation easement. Only Keene voted in favor, effectively creating conflicting recommendations on the company’s original proposal.
Depending on the timing of when the company appears before the Town Council, voters could now have a lot more say in the project than is typical. In less than four months, residents will head to the polls for a local election, the outcome of which could determine whether the Town Council accepts the proposed land swap.