Planners warm on Holliston solar, but access may hold up Buxton Street array


NORTH SMITHFIELD – The North Smithfield Planning Board held preliminary hearings for two new solar projects this week, and while one appeared unlikely to get their stamp of approval, a second proposal received somewhat encouraging reviews.

Buzz Becker of Hexagon Energy presented a project for the town’s northern border with Massachusetts at 423 Buxton St., on a property owned by Theresa Hill.

“It’s really tucked away, hidden and at the state border,” Becker said. “I’ve been working with the landowner for over a year now.”

As presented, the project would require subdividing Hill’s 20-acre residential lot to create a 16-acre site for the solar array. The change would necessitate a zoning variance, falling 70 feet short of the required frontage, a hurdle planners said they would not likely support after just recently creating the town’s solar ordinance.

“If we started allowing variances right off the back with the new ordinance, we’re already shooting ourselves in the foot,” said Planner Jeffrey Porter, noting he was not inclined to set such a precedence.

Planner Richard Keene said that he would need a reason to support a variance, and alternate Megan Staples she was opposed to the idea.

“I am not in agreement with creating non-conforming lots for any use, never mind solar,” said Staples.

Becker asked if the project was good fit for the town minus the issue of the variance, and Staples noted that the plan would not require clearing trees or altering wetlands.

“I really love this. It just happens to be in a bad spot,” Staples said. “I’m not thrilled that I have to say, ‘no.'”

Unless plans are altered significantly, board members noted that the solar company would have to build a roadway to create frontage.

“It’s quite expensive to do that,” said Planning Director Tom Kravitz.

Virginia-based Hexagon also has solar projects in the works in neighboring Burrillville.

Frank Epps of Rhode Island-based Energy Development Partners presented the second project, a 1.44 megawatt array proposed for a property owned by Holliston Sand.

“The purpose is electrical independence,” said Epps. “We have hundreds of acres of land.”

Epps noted that the array would be placed on soil that’s already been disturbed, and require almost no removal of trees or vegetation. Ground-mounted panels would be eight feet high, and surrounded by a 7-foot high security fence on the western portion of the company’s land by the Slatersville Reservior.

Holliston has interest in some 500 acres on 15 lots in North Smithfield along Old Forge Road, Oxford Road and Tifft Road.

The project would include building a 12,000-square-foot storage building to house electrical equipment and provide access to water to the clean panels, according to the preliminary plan.

Planner David Punchak questioned the need for such a building, noting it’s not something normally required for solar arrays.

“That’s not anything, in my mind, to do with putting up 1.44 megawatts of solar,” Punchak said.

Kravitz questioned if access to the lots would be an issue, with entry planned by Tifft Road, a street that was the subject of a lawsuit with land-locked abutters after Holliston blocked the road in 2003. The company eventually won control of the road through an adverse possession suit.

“Holliston, years ago, spent millions to buy that access road out,” Epps said.

Solicitor David Igliozzi agreed.

“As far as the law is concerned the applicant has met the legal requirement,” Igliozzi told planners.

Keene spoke favorably of the proposal, which is only in the initial planning stages.

“You’d be hard pressed to find a project that better meets the intent of the ordinance,” Keene said.

The meeting was the first held virtually by the board following state-mandates regarding social distancing implemented in March.

Chairman Gary Palardy said that, “Now that we are trailblazers and tonight’s meeting was held successfully… we don’t want to close off the ability of applicants to do business.”

Kravitz said he’s inclined to hold a virtual meeting every Thursday to allow planners to catch up on the backlog of applications.

The Planning Board will meet virtually once again this week starting at 7:05 p.m. The agenda includes a look at the final plans for a 1,000 kilowatt solar array on Greenville Road on land owned by Town Administrator Gary Ezovski’s company Grand Banks Commerce.

The application by Econox Renewables, along with notes on another item for planners, a proposed subdivision on Edward Avenue, can be found on the Planning Board page of the town’s website here.

Residents can attend virtually via Zoom with a link found on the agenda here.

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