NORTH SMITHFIELD – Noting that the project would disrupt a large stretch of contiguous forest in a residential area, planners voted 3-2 against a proposal by Islander Solar, LLC to install a 2.8 megawatt ground-mounted solar system on a vacant lot off of Iron Mine Hill Road.
The project, dubbed Pomham Solar, would have seen panels installed on 5.5 acres of a 22-acre parcel owned by Joseph and Sandra Authier.
Planner Jeffrey Porter said that while the proposal would promote environmental sustainability, a goal listed in the town’s comprehensive plan, it would fail to meet several other goals, including protection of natural resources.
“While it checks one box it does not check all of these other boxes that we’re trying to accommodate,” Porter said, noting that he felt the commercial project was also incompatible with residential use.
If planners had granted a positive recommendation at the meeting on Thursday, May 26, the project would still have required an appearance before the Zoning Board for a special use permit to erect solar in residential zone.
Planner Richard Keene noted that North Smithfield’s comprehensive plan also states that forest fragmentation is a concern – both in town and statewide. The property, Keene said, lies within a large contiguous forest that extends from Iron Mine Hill Road south to Rocky Hill Road; east to Woonsocket Reservoir #3 and west to Grange Road.
“I understand it’s only 22 acres, of which only half is being disturbed, but it’s chipping away at a contiguous forest,” Keene said. “If we allow this, I’m concerned that there will be others, and eventually that forest is going to be reduced to nothing.”
Ed Pimental, a zoning expert testifying on behalf of the developer, made his case for the project and the need for renewable energy.
“I am a big proponent of solar,” said Pimental, noting that hiding the panels is typically the greatest challenge. “We try to find sites that are well-forested.”
Pimental said he disagreed with Porter’s assessment that solar is incompatible with residential uses.
“It is a balancing act,” he said. “You try to preserve as much of the land as possible.”
He pointed to the owner’s right to utilize the land-locked property, listed as 850 Iron Mine Hill Road.
“There is nothing to stop a property owner from logging and removing a lot of trees,” Pimental said. “People have property rights and the have the right to utilize those those properties in accordance with your zoning regulations.”
Pimental also argued that if the town did not want such solar projects, regulations should reflect that desire – not allow development via a special use permit.
“We have to try to address our energy needs,” he said. “We end up achieving it by using a lot of the rural acreage.”
“Regulations effectuate goals and objectives,” Pimental added, noting that the lot is just across the street from the boundary of the town’s solar overlay district. “This community wants to do its fair share.”
“I hope you’re not insinuating that North Smithfield hasn’t done its fair share in solar energy,” Keene responded. “What percent of its forest would a community have to give up in order to obtain its fair share of renewable energy?”
“I am going to vote against it solely for that reason,” Keene said of the forest fragmentation. “If it were in a different place. I would vote for it whole-heartedly.”
Planner Michael Fournier joined Porter and Keene in denial of the master plan, with Board Chairman Gary Palardy and Planner David Punchak casting the minority votes for approval.
Solicitor David Igliozzi said the developer will appeal the decision to the town’s Zoning Board.