Too bad that North Smithfield people appear not to know that the state’s current Wildlife Action Plan has mapped the site of Green Energy Development’s Whortleberry Hill solar project with a pair of high value conservation designations that in neighboring Burrillville have proved crucial in the case against the Clear River Energy Center power plant.
Whorteberry Hill, on the Department of Environmental Management’s 2015 Wildlife Action Plan’s “Conservation Opportunity Areas” map, is designated as both a regional “Wildlife Corridor” critical to terrestrial migration, and a “Natural Heritage Area,” being the habitat of documented findings of “State-listed” species that are “Endangered,” “Threatened,” or “Species of Concern.” In addition, Whortleberry Hill is also partially designated as a “Core Forest,” a block of “un-fragmented forest, 500+ acres.”
Just how important might that be?
In June, we all heard the news that the RI Energy Facilities Siting Board rejected the Invenergy company’s bid to build its power plant on a similar forested tract in the Buck Hill region of Burrillville.
Central in the four years of deliberation was the question of the plant’s impact on the ecosystem of its surroundings as The Wildlife Action Plan designates the area as both a Core Forest and as major regional Wildlife Corridor.
In cross-examination, the Associate Director of the RI office of The Nature Conservancy, Scott Comings, testified to the critical matter of maintaining Wildlife Corridors as flora and fauna migrate north due to climate warming. The Nature Conservancy is the lead entity mapping these corridors all across North America. Comings testified that the clear-cutting, the fencing, and the operation of the power plant would represent an unambiguous “unacceptable harm” to the environment, that in no fashion could the plant be be built without that level of irredeemable impact.
And while the 2015 Wildlife Action Plan did not designated the site as a Natural Heritage Area, it was so close to others that the EFSB ordered Invenergy to conduct a biological inventory. The study revealed that 15 “State-listed” species were present. More than enough to qualify the site and its surroundings as a Natural Heritage Area when the Wildlife Action Plan is revised in 2025. Consequently, when DEM Deputy Director for Fish and Wildlife, Jay Osenkowski, was cross-examined, he, too, testified that building the plant would be an unacceptable harm, explaining that most of those State- listed species were specially adapted to deep forest and cannot survive without it.
So shrewd, then, that the Whortleberry Hill developers decided to cap their project just shy of the 40 megawatt threshold that would have required the Energy Facilities Siting Board to vet their project instead of the North Smithfield Planning Board. Since a word hasn’t been reported that the North Smithfield authorities are aware of the Wildlife Action Plan and its map, one must congratulate the ironically named Green Energy Development company for its business acumen.
However, they should not get away with this again. RI DEM recommends the use of the Wildlife Action Plan map as a feature of all municipal Comprehensive Plans, and the Division of Statewide Planning promotes the Conservation Opportunity Areas Map as an essential tool to be included in local solar siting ordinances.
One hopes that the Whortleberry Hill debacle will prompt North Smithfield citizens to advocate the inclusion of these in a revision of their own Comprehensive Plan and solar siting ordinance. And the clarity Conservation Opportunity Areas mapping brings to the exploratory phase of solar projects should be of obvious appeal to developers.
William Eccleston is a conservation activist, and former Burrillville resident and co-chairman of Burrillville’s first Comprehensive Plan.
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