HOPKINTON — Opponents of a massive commercial solar-energy facility proposed for Palmer’s Circle had a chance to speak last week when the Planning Board held a public informational meeting on the master plan for the project.
Some residents questioned the applicant’s assertion that the project is permitted by right in the commercial special zone, and others objected to the project’s impact on streams and the obstruction of the Narragansett trail that runs through the property.
Project engineer Sergio Cherenzia provided an overview of the plan, which calls for a 100-acre solar array on the 252-acre wooded property. The developer, RI-95 LLC, purchased the land from the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation in March 2019 for $750,000.
“With respect to stormwater, the project will discharge to the Canonchet Brook and its tributaries to the east and Tomaquag Brook and its tributaries to the west,” Cherenzia said.
Cherenzia also mentioned the presence of trails on the property, one of which is the 22-mile Narragansett Trail, which would be blocked by solar panels in the Coon Hill section.
“There are a series of stone walls and existing trails on the property,” he said. “It’s not within a natural heritage area, scenic road or state designated scenic area.”
Attorney William Landry, representing the applicant, reiterated the developer’s assertion that since the parcel is already zoned commercial special, the project can be built by right. That position has been supported by Town Solicitor Kevin McAllister as well as zoning officials.
“This one really stands apart because we’re dealing not with a residential zone that’s seeking to be re-zoned to a commercial zone, but a zone that starts off as a commercial zone, in which solar is a permitted, by right use,” Landry said.
Peter Skwirz, the attorney representing abutters Tom and Cynthia Sculco disagreed, arguing that the property had been rezoned commercial special in 1990 for a specific project involving a golf course and accessory buildings, a project that was never built.
Skwirz further argued that allowing a solar project to be built on a property that had been rezoned for another specific purpose would also cast doubt on the future uses of commercial solar projects in town that had already received rezoning specifically for solar.
“I think that’s a dangerous precedent to set, especially since a number of properties in recent years have been rezoned from residential to commercial with the understanding that the only permitted use would be solar,” he said. “If you open up this precedent to allow other types of uses, all those projects which were rezoned from residential to commercial only for solar will all of a sudden be allowed any commercial use.”
There was also an objection to the plan to discharge stormwater into the Canonchet and Tomaquag brooks, both of which are part of the Wood-Pawcatuck watershed, which has been designated as Wild and Scenic by the federal government.
Elaine Caldarone, who represents Hopkinton on the Wild and Scenic Rivers Stewardship Council, quoted excerpts from the stewardship plan.
“New alternative energy systems should be carefully sited to minimize any disturbance within the recommended one-quarter-mile area along these nationally-designated water bodies, and stormwater plans should assure all sediments are captured and do not reach the water bodies untreated,” she stated.
Caldarone said while the brooks might appear to be small, they are considered to be significant enough to be federally protected.
“The wetland area and those brooks are very important,” she said. “They were important enough to be designated as part of our national Wild and Scenic river system.”
A representative of the Narragansett Chapter of the Appalachian Mountain Club said his organization opposed the plan to erect solar panels over the Narragansett Trail.
Corey Mott, Secretary of the Narragansett Trail Restoration Project Committee, asked for permission to mark the trail.
“We’re requesting permission to walk and flag the trail so that the developers are aware of its location,” he said. “We’d be happy to do that, to help them out. We really would like to preserve the trail where it is located on the property, but if that’s not an option, obviously, because it’s a solar farm, then I hope that we come to a reasonable alternative so that the trail can still stay in that general area.”
Planning Board Chairman Alfred DiOrio said he hoped the developer would consider the comments from board members, residents and others.
Town Planner James Lamphere has recommended that Crossman Engineering conduct a peer review of the master plan. Members of the Planning Board approved the independent review proposal.