Hearing scheduled on tax treaties for nine LLCs as part of massive No. Smithfield solar project

Mark DePasquale. left, with attorney Stephen Bursini

NORTH SMITHFIELD – A 42.6-megawatt solar project off of Iron Mine Hill Road would encompass five lots and involve nine separate companies under a proposed tax treaty and development agreement scheduled for a public hearing later this month.

But the hearing comes as the Town Council must also consider a recommendation by the Planning Board that the town enact an emergency moratorium on solar projects.

The proposal by Green Energy Development of North Kingstown would be the largest in the state, but would be split into nine legal entities to avoid size limitations in Rhode Island’s renewable energy growth program, according to an attorney working for the developer.

Three lots in the 400 acres of land encompassed in the plan are owned by Ralph and Muriel Ferra, with the others owned by Khan Faradoon of Lincoln, according to town property records. Councilors created a special zoning district last year allowing the project to skirt the town’s zoning board of review, a decision that drew criticism from some residents, including environmental advocates.

Installation of the solar panels will require clear cutting of some 200 acres of forested land on Whortleberry Hill. Several bills before the General Assembly in recent years that would have instead aimed to direct projects to landfills, gravel pits and other underused industrial sites have failed to gain traction.

According to the nine treaties scheduled for a public hearing on Monday, Sept. 23, limited liability companies dubbed “GDIM” – 1 through 9 – would each produce less than 7 megawatts of electricity. State law dictates that energy projects 40 megawatts or larger go before the state Energy Facility Siting Board for review.

Agreements with all nine entities would tax the systems $7,000 per megawatt per year over 20 years, with benefits reportedly totaling more than $5.6 million over the life of the project. The potential deal between the town of North Smithfield and Green Development exceeds a state requirement that solar companies pay towns $5,000 per megawatt, and also includes an additional one-time payment of $5,000 per megawatt.

But at a meeting last week, councilors indicated they aren’t yet sold on the deal.

“The land itself can be taxed at a higher value,” said Councilor Paul Zwolenski. “That’s my understanding.”

Zwolenski noted that as it stands, the agreements would prohibit the town from increasing the assessment on the land beneath the array, or utilizing a higher commercial rate to benefit from the improvements.

Solicitor David Igliozzi explained that several lawsuits challenging such additional costs to landowners, assessed after tax treaties were signed, are currently underway in Superior Court.

Developer Mark DePasquale urged the council to move forward on the project, threatening to take the additional $2,000 per megawatt currently listed in the agreements off the table.

“Time is of the essence- absolutely,” said DePasquale. “I believe we’ve answered a lot of your questions. We’ve invested a lot to get to this point.”

Several councilors indicated they were unwilling to approve any agreement limiting the town’s ability to change future assessments, but the board voted to move forward on the public hearing.

The town Planning Board, meanwhile, has requested that the Town Council place an emergency moratorium on all such projects.

A similar move by the town of Exeter earlier this year led DePasquale and his company Green Development to file suit. That town put a moratorium on solar development after 11 applications for projects were submitted over the course of a year, seven of which were from DePaquale’s company.

Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Lanphear ultimately sided with the town, upholding the measure.  

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