Council considers plan to purchase open space with solar revenue; Gold Forest back in focus

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Update: The council did not vote to pass the initiative. Visit NRI NOW for more on this story in the coming days.

NORTH SMITHFIELD – Tax revenue brought in through Green Energy Development’s 38-megawatt solar array on Iron Mine Hill Road could end up in an account dedicated to the purchase of open space under a proposal to be considered by members of the Town Council Wednesday night.

The roughly $7 million windfall expected from the project over the next 25 years would be split between land acquisition and projects related to town seniors if others on the board show support for an initiative by Council President John Beauregard.

The idea is among items on the agenda for the Town Council’s meeting scheduled for Wednesday, Jan. 5.

“I’d like to come to an agreement on a breakdown on how to spend the money,” Beauregard told NRI NOW before the meeting, noting that he’d like to see the roughly $276,000 in new annual revenue from the project split 80/20, with the majority dedicated to potential land purchases. “I think open space is very important to retain the rural character of the town.”

If it moves forward, Beauregard notes the effort could bring resolution to a long-hoped for project from his previous tenure: the purchase of a Mattity Road lot known as Gold Forest. The scenic 112-acre property includes miles of hiking trails, and unique historic features such as a former piggery.

Beauregard was among town officials who negotiated terms with former owner David Gold to purchase the land back in 2018, and had ironed out an agreement that would have utilized a $400,000 grant from the Department of Environmental Management. Tax revenues from developer Mark DePasquale’s solar array would have made up the difference to cover the land purchase under the plan.

“That money was supposed to be used to buy the Gold Forest,” Beauregard said of the tax treaty with Green Energy, finalized in 2020, for what is now the largest functioning solar farm in Rhode Island.

But Beauregard lost his reelection bid that year and in 2019, a new council rejected the Gold land purchase plan.

“It fell apart after I wasn’t reelected,” he said of the agreement to buy the lot for residents’ enjoyment. “It almost became a solar farm as a result.”

Owner Gold opened the private land to the public in 2020 as a way for locals to escape from pandemic-related stress and restrictions.

“I think as a result of the pandemic and Mr. Gold opening up the space to visitors, a lot of people really had the opportunity to see what a treasure it could be for the town,” Beauregard said.

Beauregard noted that he’s not yet sure if a new deal to purchase the property is even possible.

Gold himself died in August of 2020. An alternative proposal, which would have seen a 56-acre portion of the Gold lot donated to the town while 36 acres was used for solar, was rejected by the Zoning Board in October.

But the council president says he hopes to try to resurrect a deal for purchase of the complete lot.

“That would be the ideal situation,” Beauregard said, noting that the idea of purchasing the forest also has support from Town Administrator Paul Zwolenski.

“That would be around for future generations,” he added of the land. “It’s beautiful.”

But it’s not the only potential lot where the tax revenue could be put to use. Beauregard said he’s discussed other options with North Smithfield Heritage Association President Richard Keene.

Keene sent out a memo to association members this week promoting the idea and told NRI NOW he plans to speak in favor of Beauregard’s plan as a private resident Wednesday night.

“There are several other nice pieces of property out there,” Beauregard said.

Asked if other councilors are open to the plan of dedicating the money to open space, Beauregard said he’s not yet sure.

“I know there are some councilors who are very interested in open space,” he said.

If councilors come to an agreement, Town Solicitor David Igliozzi would draw up an ordinance specifying how to allocate the money, which would require a public hearing to pass.

Beauregard said he believes it’s the best option.

“That amount of money, going into a $40 million budget, would be nothing…. only pennies on a tax bill,” he said. “Committed to a dedicated account, it can do a lot of good.”

It is one of two items to be discussed on Wednesday related to the solar farm. DePasquale is also expected to update the council on his efforts to build a new bathroom and concession stands by the North Smithfield High School Athletic Fields. Beauregard said all needed permits have now been obtained for the project – another benefit secured as part of the solar approval.

A rendering shows the proposed plans for the new bathroom and concession stands at the high school athletic fields, another benefit negotiated as part of the town’s tax treaty with Green Development.

“It’s going to be really nice,” Beauregard said. “We will have a groundbreaking.”

And while building of the massive array, expected to produce enough electricity to power 8,740 homes, was an inconvenience for Green Development’s neighbors, Beauregard says he believes it was ultimately the right decision.

“Now that the construction is over, the neighborhood is going to go back to the way it was,” said Beauregard, noting that the alternative for the private 420-acre lot on Iron Mine Hill Road was to build housing. “The town will be much better off.”

“In the long run, it’s a home run for the town,” he said. “We’ll be taking revenue from private property that we can’t use, and turning it into public property that we can use.”

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