NORTH SMITHFIELD – It’s a project that’s been talked about for years, and the news that it could finally happen came from an unexpected source.
Former Town Council President John Beauregard told the Town Council Monday night that Mark DePasquale of Green Energy Development has offered to build a bathroom and concession stand for the town’s athletic complex as part of an agreement for solar development.
While councilors voted unanimously to move negotiations forward this week, it is not yet clear if the athletic project will become part of the solar agreement.
Beauregard announced the information during a hearing Monday, Sept. 23 regarding tax treaties for nine separate solar projects on land off of Iron Mine Hill Road. The former councilor, who lost his seat an election last November, said he called the developer with the request.
“I talked to him on behalf of the town,” said Beauregard. “I know I’m not a councilor anymore, but I have a vested interest in this.”
Beauregard said that building state-of-the-art concession stands and bathrooms by the high school and middle school athletic fields would cost the town $350,000 to $400,000, while for DePasquale – an experienced developer – would cost $225,000 to $250,000.
“I’m presenting an opportunity to finally get something done with that concession stand,” Beauregard said. “It will cost the taxpayers nothing.”
Prior to the announcement, several residents expressed concerns with the preliminary agreements presented. The five lots that would be affected by the project encompass roughly 400 acres of land, and on Monday, Stephen Bursini, an attorney for the developer, verified that total solar development would add up to 38.4 megawatts – below the amount required for the project to go before the Energy Facility Siting Board.
“I’m still trying to figure out why this is nine separate agreements,” said resident Michael Clifford, asking councilors if they knew of any other towns with one project divided into nine proposals. “Can you tell us the pros and cons of doing it this way?”
Councilor Paul Vadenais noted that the project to construct Dowling Village was also divided into proposals by several different limited liability corporations.
“It’s his prerogative, it’s not ours,” Vadenais said of the developer.
Funds set aside for decommissioning the project were another concern.
“Think about the cost to remove all that equipment,” said resident Mike Rapko. “You have to remember 25 years from now with inflation, it’s going to double the value.”
Beauregard, speaking as a resident, said that the project to build the improvements to the athletic complex would come in place of a proposed one-time payment from the developer of $195,000.
Councilor Claire O’Hara thanked the former councilor for his efforts.
“We could do a lot more with that field if we had a place to relieve ourselves,” said O’hara. “If this could be done, it would be a great thing. Hopefully there would be nothing that would stop this from going through.”
Councilor Douglas Osier questioned the timing of the news.
“It’s a little odd,” said Osier. “When a deal sounds too good to be true, it usually is too good to be true.”
Osier said that he is in favor of the town using funds for infrastructure, and supports the building of concessions, but felt the council should have known about the potential deal prior to Monday night.
Councilor Paul Zwolenski said that he’d been kept apprised of Beauregard’s efforts “for months,” but he was afraid of creating an Open Meetings Act violation by discussing it with his fellow board members.
“This whole thing sounds really fishy,” said Osier. “It is odd that at the 11th hour when we’re at the public hearing, we’re finding out that there was more communication that this council was not made aware of.”
Resident Tony Guertin questioned Osier’s assessment.
“I have no idea what’s odd about a citizen of this town trying to do something good for this town,” said Guertin. “I think it’s admirable. I think it’s a brilliant effort on his part to try to do something good for the town of North Smithfield.”
Residents also expressed concern about the project’s environmental impact. Installation of the solar panels will require clear cutting of some 200 acres of forested land on Whortleberry Hill.
“I think we can all agree that ideally, we would use land that had already been cleared for a project this large,” said Kelsey Carpenter.
Bursini later noted that only 180 of the 412 acres would be affected.
Beauregard said that DePasquale has also said he will install a culvert on a a different town property, a project hoped for by the town’s conservation commission.
Commission Chairman Paul Soares said his board is “still opposed to clear-cutting forests for solar arrays.”
“However, we’re stuck with it,” said Soares, adding that he’s hopeful the revenue from the project could go toward the purchase of open space. The project was started during Beauregard’s reign on the council under the premise that the town could use the money for purchase of the Gold property – 144 acres of open space off Mattity Road.
DePasquale said he hopes to have his whole project completed by December of next year. The developer said the one-time payment – or funding for athletic complex improvements – would be provided before work begins.
“That’s something I can control,” said DePasquale of the separate payment. “If you want the cash in an account, it would be given before the building permit was issued. It was correct what Mr. Beauregard said.”
Zwolenski noted a discrepancy on documents regarding the size of the project, with one plan putting the total at 42.74 megawatts.
Bursini explained that the higher number was only on a preliminary document provided at the request of the town.
The attorney also addressed the question of why the project was divided into nine agreements, noting, in part, that having smaller projects will allow participation in renewable energy programs.
“There was excessive correspondence with the PUC on this issue,” said Bursini of the state governing body.
Solicitor David Igliozzi noted that questions regarding the town’s ability to re-access the value of the land following the improvements, discussed at the council’s last meeting, could be resolved by adding language in the agreement asserting that the property would be, “assessed according to state law.” Cases involving a municipality’s right to change the assessment are currently underway in Rhode Island Superior Court.
While the public hearing was closed Monday night, negotiations with the developer are ongoing, and must still be brought back before the council for approval.
“I think we need to sit down and figure out where we want to go with this, and what we want to do,” said Vadenais.
Councilors voted unanimously to allow the town’s negotiating team to continue working on the deal.