JOHNSTON, R.I. — For more than a year, one of the biggest renewable energy developers in the state has been pushing to build a massive solar array in a residential neighborhood.
Green Development LLC, of Cranston, has so far been unsuccessful in its efforts to build solar fields on this plot of historic farmland and forests in the northwest corner of Johnston near the Smithfield and Scituate town lines.
Now, changes made by the General Assembly to streamline the way zoning boards operate — and a change to the zoning board made by the town council — may help the solar developer get approval for the project.
The project’s opponents have been vocal from the start. Residents came out in force Thursday to oppose the plan, with nearly 200 attending a zoning board meeting.
Some were ready to question every assertion from the Green Development experts, and pressured the board members about having to wait until another hearing in November to be able to ask questions and speak about the project.
“We should be able to speak to each one first, so we know what’s going on,” resident Paul Francis kept insisting, without success. “All of you guys here are supposed to be representing us.” The crowd erupted in applause.
John Mancini, Green Development’s lawyer, told the audience at Thursday’s meeting that the developer now only needs a majority vote for a special-use permit.
Mancini told the board that even though the area is zoned as residential, the uses for that area permits public utilities, such as an electric power-generating plant, however the power is generated. That allows the company to file for a special-use permit.
Zoning board members asked few, if any, questions during Green Development’s presentation. The company’s experts also revealed that the town of Johnston — unlike several other municipalities — ultimately doesn’t have ordinances specific to solar array development. The town’s own comprehensive plan, dated back to 2007, doesn’t even mention solar.
Since 2014, those employed by Green Development LLC, including its founder, Mark DePasquale, have donated a total of more than $129,000 to Democratic leaders in the General Assembly, the Rhode Island Senate Democrats PAC, governors Gina Raimondo and Dan McKee, and mayors of municipalities including Johnston, Providence, East Providence, and Pawtucket, according to campaign finance records.
Johnston residents in the neighborhoods where the developer has eyed its projects banded together, forming the Stop Johnston Solar group, and hiring a lawyer, Matthew Landry, to help them fight.
The crowd packed into the Johnston Senior Center Thursday groaned and jeered at Mancini and the company’s experts. The opposition to the solar project will present their side — and the public will be allowed to speak — at the hearing when it’s continued Nov. 2.
They’ve been here before. In April 2022, when more than a hundred residents came out against Green Development’s proposal for a 24-megawatt solar field, the zoning board voted 3 to 2, just one vote shy of the super majority vote needed for the special use permit. The developer filed an appeal, which is still being litigated.
Now the project now only needs a majority vote to pass, and the town council replaced one of the members who voted against the project.
Despite a town zoning ordinance that a project cannot be heard again until two years has passed, unless significant changes have been made to the plan, Green Development came back early.
The developer said it has a slightly altered plan; solar panels closest to the Scituate Reservoir watershed are removed, and the property will no longer store lithium-ion batteries. However, under questioning by Landry, one of the developer’s experts revealed there is little difference in the lot coverage.
These nearly 160 acres, which are zoned for residential use, include a farmstead and historic cemetery of the Winsor family — the property is at 112 Winsor Avenue — along with agricultural fields, forests, wetlands, and Sikkibunkiaut Hill.
Green Development said it has reduced the solar development to a 19-megawatt field and removed panels from areas near neighboring properties and the Scituate Reservoir watershed. The company is also proposing to donate 52 percent of the property to the town for open space after the project is completed; the rest would be solar lease area. Mancini said that Green Development would give the rest of the property to the town after the solar field is decommissioned, in at least 25 years.
“It’s not usual and not every day that a developer grants something to town,” Mancini said.
The company is proposing panels and fencing over nearly 68 acres of the property, with solar panels as close at 150 feet away from homes south of Winsor Avenue.
Each solar panel is about 90 inches tall by 45 inches wide, mounted at a height between 9 to 12 feet. The installation will include utilities to connect with the Rhode Island Energy circuit.
To install, the company will clear-cut the forests and blast rock to grade the site. The company said it will also install buffers and landscaping to shield the view from the neighboring homes. The experts also acknowledged that, while they would plant pollinator areas and trees to buffer the area, the wildlife living in the forests, agricultural land, and wetlands will be displaced.
Several longtime residents said they always expected that other homes could be built on the old farmland. But they never expected they could end up living next to an industrial site.
They said they support solar development in industrial areas — not in residential neighborhoods, and not when it amounts to clear-cutting forests.
As Mayor Joseph Polisena Jr. has pulled the public meeting notices from the free Johnston Sun Rise weekly, which most residents read, and moved them to the subscription-based Providence Journal, which fewer residents read, the members of Stop Johnston Solar decided to inform residents on their own about the zoning board meeting. They put up signs throughout the neighborhood announcing Thursday’s meeting and urging people to attend. They invited residents to join their Facebook group, Stop Johnston Solar, and circulated a petition during Thursday’s meeting, as well as online.
“We went all out trying to let everyone be aware, because only the abutters would be aware,” Lynn Grissom told the Globe this week.
Karen Cappelli Chadwick, who ran against Polisena in the last election, said earlier this week she handed out flyers to residents all over town to make sure they knew about the hearing.
“They’re very concerned,” she said. “The problem in this town is very little transparency and it’s hard to find out what’s next.”
She’s not an abutter to the proposed solar fields, but she said that she and other residents care about what’s happening to their town, no matter where it’s happening.
“These people have already spoken up,” Chadwick added. “How many times do you have to defend your property from the town?”
Faced with similar issues over the years, other cities and towns set temporary moratoriums on solar development until they could develop their own ordinances.
Town Council member Robert J. Civetti had proposed an ordinance to temporarily halt solar development in residential neighborhoods, but none of the other council members would second his motion. Civetti represents the neighborhoods where those developments are being proposed.
The fight in Johnston is representative of a battle that’s been ongoing in municipalities across the state.
The push for these projects — and the clear-cutting of forests — led to a new solar siting law approved by the General Assembly this year. Large-scale renewable development has been the leading cause of deforestation in Rhode Island since 2018.
The new law prohibits solar projects proposed to be sited in “core forests” — unfragmented forest blocks totaling 250 acres — from receiving certain state incentives. About 58 percent of the forested land in Rhode Island is considered core forest, according to the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management.