The Westerly Sun
CHARLESTOWN — Members of the Town Council voted at a public hearing Monday to reject a proposed commercial solar energy ordinance submitted by a solar developer. The unanimous decision, with council president Virginia Lee absent, follows a negative advisory issued on Feb. 26 by the Planning Commission.
Charlestown’s current comprehensive plan does not mention utility-scale or commercial energy production as permitted uses, therefore commercial solar facilities are currently prohibited in the town.
Tighe & Bond Inc., acting on behalf of Freepoint LLC of Stamford, Conn., proposed a zoning ordinance amendment that would allow a commercial solar facility near the town’s northern end in the area comprising Burdickville, Shannock and Shumankanuc Hill roads. The new solar ordinance would have been based on a model ordinance developed in 2019 by the Rhode Island Office of Energy Resources and Division of Statewide Planning.
Tom Swank, president of Freepoint Solar development partner, Sun East Development, said he understood that presenting the town with an ordinance might not be the ideal way to proceed, but the developers had been exploring solar projects in Charlestown since 2016. Two landowners, Swank said, were now interested in selling and the company already has an interconnection agreement with National Grid.
“We’ve been successful in our work with National Grid where we have projects that have been approved to connect to grid, we’ve gotten state incentives to make the projects be able to go forward, and now, really, the last piece is to be able to have an ordinance in place that allows us to begin the permitting process,” he said.
In issuing the negative advisory to the council, the Planning Commission said the proposed zoning ordinance would allow extensive land-clearing and would have a negative impact on the town’s rural character.
“There are also a lot of things they didn’t show you on that map, like natural heritage areas,” commission member Ruth Platner said at Monday’s hearing. “So they are very specific about what they’re going to protect. They’re going to protect species of state concern. That’s a very limited list. There are many, many environmental things like wildlife corridors, the river. They’ve made the river the center. They say they’re going to stay away from scenic areas, but that part of Charlestown is incredibly scenic.”
Swank indicated that time was running out for the proposed solar projects.
“We have gotten to the point where the timeline for the project, the incentives that we have from the state, are running out, and we if we can’t go forward with starting the permitting process, we may not be able to develop these projects in town,” he said. “We didn’t want to make it seem like we were going around the Planning Commission, but we really didn’t have any other choice in the matter to stay on the timeline so that we had a shot to make these projects work.”
With an update to the town’s comprehensive plan currently underway, commission members have maintained that the current plan, which has no provision for commercial solar projects, remains in effect.
Briony Angus, a consultant for the developer, said contrary to the commission’s assertion, the proposed zoning ordinance was consistent with not only the current comprehensive plan, but the previous plan, and the draft of the updated plan.
“We really do feel that the solar ordinance that we’ve proposed and zoning for solar in general is incredibly consistent with all three iterations of that comp plan,” she said. “Specifically, the 2006 five-year update has a policy suggestion of reducing Charlestown’s carbon footprint.”
Attorney John Kenyon, representing Freepoint, argued that the proposed ordinance did comply with the comprehensive plan and also noted that the fact that the plan does not specifically mention commercial solar energy does not mean it is a prohibited use.
Members of the Planning Commission, council members and several residents expressed concern that accepting an ordinance from a commercial entity from outside Charlestown would serve the developer and not necessarily the interests of the town.
John Coulter, co-owner with his wife, Kim, of Stoney Hill cattle farm on Shumankanuc Hill Road, said his family felt an obligation to preserve the land for future generations.
“Since 1738, the townspeople have built and cared for this town, and I don’t think an outside entity should come in and change our ordinance for their own financial gain — more than the gains of the residents themselves,” he said. “It is my opinion that this is a do-it-now niche market and the people who are going to make the most money from it aren’t gong to be here when it’s all said and done. Nor are they going to drive by it and look at it out their kitchen windows. Let’s leave a little land behind for the future of this country and this town.”
Reiterating their desire to see ordinances coming from the town’s Planning Commission rather than an outside company, council members voted to deny the application.
“I’d be looking for something from the Planning Commission after the comprehensive plan is done,” said councilor Julie Carroccia.
Council members David Wilkinson, Bonnie Van Slyke and council vice president Deborah Carney agreed.
“I agree with the majority of what was said here this evening,” Carney said. “There are places in town, I think, where it could be acceptable, but I think this needs to come from the community. There needs to be more community input before we make a decision.”