State officials say that Burrillville solar laws could use work

Wood says town is 'not ready' for major changes

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BURRILLVILLE – A state group focused on promoting the growth of alternative energy visited town last week as part of a tour to encourage municipalities to implement laws that will promote solar development.

And it seems like many communities across Rhode Island, Burrillville could revisit its process if the community wants to encourage targeted growth of the industry.

State law leaves solar development regulation to local governments, but the Renewable Energy Standard established by Rhode Island General Law requires that 38.5 percent of electricity sold in the state be generated by renewable sources by 2035.

Currently, just over 15 percent is generated from renewable sources.

“We want to address climate change. We’re going to address climate change through renewables,” said Chris Kearns, chief of program development at the Rhode Island Office of Energy Resources.

In efforts to meet the goal, and to help towns learn how to address the myriad of solar projects coming before them, OER has worked with stakeholders over the past two years to develop model ordinances for siting and taxation. Last week’s forum, organized by the Burrillville Land Trust, was one of 14 scheduled outreach meetings across the state.

“We’re not forcing anything,” said Nancy Hess, supervising planner at the state Division of Planning. “We’re suggesting an approach.”

Burrillville’s current ordinance, adopted in May of 2017, determines where solar projects are permitted according to size, categorizing solar energy systems as small scale, medium scale, large scale and commercial scale according to the capacity the setups can produce.

It also dictates that systems “all large-, commercial-, or medium-scale solar energy systems shall cover no greater than 20 percent of a lot, or contiguous lots in common ownership.”

Officials noted that there are a number of issues with the approach.

“Solar systems are not one size fits all,” said Hess, noting that the town may want to direct and encourage solar development for sites that can’t be used for other things such as gravel banks, junk yards and landfills.

In those cases, she noted, long processes and limitations may discourage potential developers.

“Don’t focus on amount of power generation or size,” said Kearns, noting that a gravel pit should not be held to the same standard if the town wants to encourage and direct the use of less desirable land. “Try to avoid hard artificial numbers.”

Chris Kearns, chief of program development at the Rhode Island Office of Energy Resources, speak with residents during a forum on solar energy.

OER’s model zoning table instead divides systems according to if solar is an accessory or primary use for the property. It distinguishes between roof mounted systems – which they feel should allowed in all zones with appropriate permitting – and ground mounted systems or parking lot solar canopies, which they suggest would follow a review process by municipal staff or the planning board, depending on location.

Officials have recommended that towns adopt the solar siting and taxation rules at the same time. They said that 18 municipalities have already adopted their tangible tax formula.

“We’re out here trying to educate and get people to be proactive,” said Hess.

Around three dozen people attended the Thursday night forum, including town leaders and planning officials, residents and those working locally in the solar industry.

In talks with NRI NOW following the meeting, Town Manager Michael Wood noted that Burrillville’s current ordinance was developed with help from OER.

“We’re pretty up to speed with most of the issues that they raised,” said Wood. “We want to go slow so we don’t end up with something that’s a real disruption to the community.”

Wood said that while he’s open to the idea of working with OER to make Burrillville’s ordinance more encouraging of solar development on unusable land, “I don’t think we’re ready to do that yet.”

“It’s not that easy to say ‘if you have an old gravel pit, it qualifies,'” said Wood. “Who’s going to determine what that is?”

He said he also does not think eliminating the 20 percent clause would be right for the town right now.

“They seemed to want it as an open-ended scenario, and I don’t think that’s what we want to do right now,” said Wood. “I think the 20 percent coverage is fine for now.”

Wood pointed out that currently, Pascoag Utility District does not offer the same lucrative incentives as National Grid for creation of solar. He defended the town’s process of using special use permits – which trigger notification of affected neighbors – to approve projects.

“Having public participation is the right thing to do,” said Wood. “Each project has to make its case based on its own merits.”

Burrillville councilors considered and rejected amendments to the town’s solar ordinance twice this year – in May and March.

Town Councilor Raymond Trinque asked the visitors, “Do you see doing a special review based on these ideas?”

Kearns responded that his office will help with the process if a town requests it.

“Our recommendation is a system that is reflective of all the stakeholders at the table,” said Hess.