Facebook discussion leads to one week delay on Gold Solar decision

Project gets recommendation with 3-2 vote

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Update: Planning Board members voted 3-2 on Thursday, July 16 to give this project a positive recommendation, with Planners Jeffrey Porter and Megan Staples voting against it. Watch for more coverage on NRI NOW as the proposal moves forward.

NORTH SMITHFIELD – The Planning Board is expected to issue a decision this week on a proposed solar project that could ultimately give town residents access to two lakes, hiking trails, equestrian trails and historic features that include a Native American battle site, a former rail station and a piggery.

Douglas Pike Solar –  a proposal for a 9-megawatt solar array on 36 acres of Mattity Road land owned by resident David Gold – was before the board again last Thursday, July 9, for discussion and/or approval of a master plan.

But the fact that several board members took part in conversations about the project on Facebook has delayed voting until this Thursday, July 16.

“For me, I would feel much better if any correspondence – the exparte communication– has been relayed to the applicant for their review before we make any decisions regarding this application,” said Planner Jeffrey Porter.

The project was already slated to see 56 acres of land owned by Gold gifted to the town upon approval, and this week, the developer announced that approval would come with addition acreage along the currently private “Bel Air Pond.”

Planners may still be split on the issue. Gold opened his entire 140-acre private property to visitors in March, and for the past several months, guests have enjoyed hikes along an intricate array of private trails through the forest.

Porter noted that many of those trails would be destroyed to build the solar array.

“I’m really torn about this project because there’s some good things and there’s some bad things,” Porter said. “It’s really a very beautiful property and it pains me that we’re going to clear cut however many acres are in front of us. I understand we’re getting something back, but at what cost.”

The planner also urged his fellow board members not to issue a decision on the project this week.

“I feel that should be given to the applicant no matter what was said. I want to make sure we have the ability to remain impartial,” Porter said. “I don’t want this to come back and bite us.”

Representing the solar developers, Attorney John Mancini noted that timing is an issue.

“This is a large project it involves a significant number of players,” Mancini said. “There’s some time constraints that we have that we have to meet to make it work.”

The attorney said he did not see it as a problem that planners had used the platform to communicate with residents – and that his client shouldn’t be delayed by their actions.

“It’s not that the applicant that was out there disseminating information via social media,” Mancini said. “I don’t do that. My engineers don’t do that. It’s an internal issue with the Planning Board.”

“You’re not violating the Open Meetings Act,” he added.

The delay was related to comments made on two NRI NOW articles posted on a page operated by Engage North Smithfield, where Planning Chairman Gary Palardy and board member Richard Keene weighed in on the discussion.

All parties ultimately agreed to make the discussion part of the record and delay voting by one week. The discussion has also since been posted on the town website.

Mancini noted approval would also come with economic benefits. Currently, he said Gold pays $9,332 per year in taxes on the land, while the solar array would come with a roughly $45,000 bill. Over 25 years, the solar development would bring in some $1,125,000 for the town in addition to access to open space, he said.

The 36 acre solar-developed portion would also be given to the town at end of the lease term as part of the current deal. Mancini said his team is working abutters of the property to create a buffer and screening, and that the agreement could be a condition of master plan approval.

If the board issues a positive recommendation, the project will still need to go before the Zoning Board for a special use permit and dimensional variance. Solar developer Anthony DelVicario has a contract for rights to develop the property, and hopes to install panels on a 1,367,267-square-foot wooded area, with an entrance to the property established off Mattity Road. Site plans submitted to the town by by DiPrete Engineering show panels on 34 percent of one 124-acre lot owned by Gold, rather than the 20 percent allowed by ordinance.

The variation from the town’s ordinance is among the issues that have led to debate among planners.

“I just want to stick with our regulations,” Porter said. “This project, as it stands right now, does not comply with our zoning.”

But Planner Richard Keene, who also serves as chairman of the North Smithfield Heritage Association, pointed to the merits of the plan. Approval, he noted, would come with two miles of nature hiking trails, plus a parallel horse trail. It would also give residents access through the area where the Second battle of Nipsachuck took place.

“This would be the first time that the public would have access to that battleground,” Keene said.

Guests explore a historic cemetery during a visit to the property.

The planner pointed to shoreline access at both Bel Air and Tarkiln Ponds, noting that the Gold property connects directly to another 17 acres of land on Mattity Road currently owned by the North Smithfield Land Trust. It also holds two historic cemeteries, the ruins of piggery and rail station, and two Native American archaeological sites. Visitors could hike the former rail bed, which runs from the Burrillville to the Smithfield town lines.

“That’s four times longer than any nature trail in town,” Keene said. “Right now, only the cemetery areas are protected from destruction. The town could lose a rare opportunity.”

Keene noted that otherwise, the property owner could legally put 26 homes on the lots.

“If that happens, the town is going to lose the forest and wildlife habitat for perpetuity,” Keene said.

Planner Megan Staples had questioned one element of the plan that would see a conservation easement lifted from one ten-acre parcel in exchange for the new area, noting the town would be receiving wetlands that already benefit from some protection from the Department of Environmental Management.

Since the last meeting, Mancini noted that developers learned the town had gained ownership of the ten-acre parcel through tax sale.

“There’s nothing endangered in there,” he said.

Wetlands biologist and consultant Scott Rabideau testified that the land the town would receive is more valuable from a conservation standpoint, pointing to the presence of the threatened Scarlet Bluet dragonfly.

“When you’re preserving the shoreline, you’re preserving the natural habitat for the species to be able to thrive there, or survive there, if they are present,” Rabideau said. “The wetlands are very valuable for wildlife. Preserving that entire shoreline is also a plus. That goes to the diversity of habitat.”

Porter said he was inclined to go back to the Town Council ask the board to reconsider buying the land instead. Proposals to purchase the property have been discussed since at least 2008, but town officials have never been able to come to a final agreement with Gold.

“Walking that property changed a lot in my mind,” Porter said

Mancini pointed out that his client has a current contract for development.

“You can’t use this process to gain leverage with the property owner and deny the project in hopes that you can buy the property,” Mancini said. “There’s several legal challenges that you’re going to face.”

“I’m not suggesting that we do anything illegal,” Porter replied.

Keene disputed the idea that the town would ultimately lose anything in the deal, pointing out that residents have only recently been allowed to visit.

“That property has been posted ‘no trespassing,’ for as long as I can remember,” Keene said, pointing to ways the proposal furthers goals in the town’s comprehensive plan, including maintain rural character and protecting historical and cultural resources.

Palardy noted that it’s just one of many solar projects that have come before planners in recent years, and that each should be evaluated individually.

“North Smithfield has been very attractive to people looking at that,” Palardy said.

Details for this Thursday’s meeting, posted on Tuesday, July 14 can be found here.

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