BURRILLVILLE – No large-scale or commercial solar projects will be permitted in farming zones in Burrillville for the time being, despite arguments from a Providence-based lawyer this week who said an avenue to development should be made available to private landowners.
The Town Council voted unanimously on Wednesday, May 9 against proposed amendments to the ordinance governing solar energy systems that, if approved, would have allowed projects generating more than a megawatt of electricity to be built on farms larger than five acres with a special use permit.
The town first developed a solar ordinance three years ago, and revised it last year through an extensive review process.
“We did it so we could move into it slowly and deliberately and not jump into something that we’d regret later on potentially,” said Town Manager Michael Wood in his recommendation against the amendment to the council. “We caution you to go slowly in this type of change to your zoning.”
According to Burrillville’s current zoning law, small scale systems of up to 25 kilowatts are permitted in most areas of town except on land zoned “open space” or “limited industrial,” and medium-scale projects of up to 250 kilowatts can be built with a special use permit in all but those two zones.
Large-scale and commercial systems creating one megawatt or more of electricity, however, can be built with a special use permit exclusively in village commercial, general commercial and general industrial zones.
The law offices of Michael Kelly had petitioned the town to change the law, and allow large and commercial-scale installations of 1 to 5 megawatts to be built on farms with more than five acres of land with a special use permit.
“There’s no avenue for relief for a landowner who would be interested in installing a large-scale solar energy system,” said Attorney Nicole Martucci with Kelly, Souza, Rocha and Parmenter, P.C. “All it’s really doing is letting a land owner apply. The town can vet them on a case-by-case basis.”
Prior to Wednesday’s meeting, the Planning Board had voted to oppose the change, a recommendation also supported by the town’s ordinance subcommittee.
“Although this has some attractive qualities to it, I don’t believe this is the right time in Burrillville for it,” said Wood. “I just don’t think it’s correct right now for our town.”
Martucci argued that without an avenue for relief, landowners seeking to build such projects could subdivide their properties and build several smaller-scale systems, ultimately taking up more land space. The town’s current ordinance includes height and buffering requirements, and dictates that solar panels cannot cover more than 20 percent of any given lot.
“A majority of that land will be undisturbed, unaffected,” said Martucci. “The ordinance provides ample protection to protect the overdevelopment of large scale solar systems already.”
When asked who she was representing, Martucci declined to identify a client driving the petition.
“The application was submitted by my law firm in terms of the text,” Martucci said. “In the event that the application were approved, there are certainly individuals who would be interested in that with certain projects in mind.”
Wood noted that while the town is not opposed to alternative energy, planners have recommended a more measured approach to development. Federal incentives have led to a influx of large-scale solar projects over the past year, including a 40 megawatt proposal currently under review in neighboring North Smithfield.
In Burrillville, three large-scale solar projects have been approved over the past year under the town’s current law.
Resident Dennis Anderson also spoke against the project, citing the possibility that it could discriminate against residents in the Pascal Utility District.
“I am the most open-minded person in this town and I totally oppose this,” said Anderson. “We’ve been fighting for three years not to screw up this town with a big power plant. Let’s not get drunk on renewable energies.”