JOHNSTON, R.I. — As crowd of about 200 listened restlessly, two expert witnesses on land use and appraisals at a hearing Thursday affirmed their fears about the impact of a massive solar field proposed for a rural, residential area in town.
Green Development LLC, of Cranston, one of the largest renewable energy companies in Rhode Island, has been pushing for well over a year to build solar fields on about 160 acres of historic farmland and forests in the northwest corner of Johnston. The company didn’t get enough votes from the zoning board with its first try in April 2022, but it’s back again, with a slightly altered plan — and it’s facing the same fierce opposition.
“This use is not appropriate,” said certified town planner and land use lawyer Nancy Letendre, an expert witness for the abutters. “This district is for residential development, and this is not residential development.”
Solar development and clear-cutting of forests and farmlands has become such an alarming issue across Rhode Island that several municipalities have adopted ordinances to restrict these projects to industrial and commercial areas.
The General Assembly passed legislation this year to protect core forests from being clear-cut in solar projects. A special House commission is now studying the feasibility of placing solar panels on unused land along highways, carports at state parking lots, and other areas.
But in the meantime, Green Development is pushing ahead for a massive solar array in Johnston’s rural neighborhood.
Thursday’s zoning board hearing was continued from September, and will continue again in December, when residents hope to be able to speak about the project. But the mood at Thursday night’s hearing turned bitter as the night wore on, again, for more than three hours.
Residents opposed to the solar project formed a group, Stop Johnston Solar, set up a Facebook group and a website that shares information about the hearings, and hired a lawyer, Matthew Landry, to help them fight.
Some mocked questions from Green Development’s lawyer, John O. Mancini, and accused him of dragging out the meeting to prevent them from speaking. Mancini told the board he was taking a five-minute recess every time he was interrupted, which prompted even more rumblings.
Shortly after a police officer warned him to be calm, resident Paul Francis was permitted to speak. “OK, people, listen to this guy’s BS,” Francis said to the crowd, pointing to Mancini. “You know he’s not on our side, he’s on the money side, he’s on the Green side. Let it go through, be calm, if you have something to say, be nice-nice.”
Some laughed and groaned as an appraiser who was an expert witness for Green Development argued the solar field wouldn’t have a negative impact in their neighborhood, if there was adequate buffering.
Appraiser Thomas Sweeney said several studies, conducted on behalf of solar companies, that found no issues with solar fields in North Carolina and the Midwest. He was dismissive of a 2020 study by University of Rhode Island professor Corey Lang that found house prices within a mile of a Rhode Island or Massachusetts solar array declined by an average of 1.7 percent, and by 7 percent for homes within a 10th of a mile.
The experts called by lawyer Matthew Landry, who represents the abutters, testified that the project was a poor fit for that residential area, that the project doesn’t fit the town’s own comprehensive plan, and that studies show a decrease in property values for those living near solar arrays.
The nearly 160 acres, which are zoned for residential use, include a farmstead and historic cemetery of the Winsor family, along with agricultural fields, forests, wetlands, and Sikkibunkiaut Hill, which is a Rhode Island Historical Cemetery.
Green Development is proposing a 19-megawatt field, with solar panels and fencing over nearly 68 acres of property, and to donate 52 percent of the property to the town for open space after the project is completed.
The town of Johnston doesn’t have ordinances specific to solar array development. The town’s own outdated comprehensive plan doesn’t even mention solar. Still, the plan stands until it is replaced.
Letendre ticked off all the ways that the project defies the comprehensive plan for this area west of Route 295, with its focus on conservation, open spaces, and preserving the rural character. This property is also very near a historic overlay and close to the aquifer protection area, she said.
“This installation requires the cutting and clearing of existing trees and construction will cause unfathomable disturbance,” she said. “Clear cutting effects, surface runoff and erosion potential increases and visual degradation of the natural landscape.”
At the last hearing in September, Mancini, the lawyer for the developer, 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.
However, Letendre said that public utilities refer to those that sell energy directly to consumers — such as RI Energy, and smaller utilities. That’s not what this project does.
Appraiser James Houle agreed, pointing out that the town of Portsmouth, R.I., already went through this mistake with a solar company there. Judge Brian Van Couyghen determined that the farm represented a manufacturing facility, not a public utility, because it transforms sunlight into electricity. And manufacturing facilities are not allowed in residential areas.
Houle also testified about several recent studies showing a decrease in property values near such projects.
Mancini asked about whether the developer’s donation of land showed a concern for conservation.
“Nothing in the application even hints at wanting to protect this area,” Letendre retorted.