NORTH SMITHFIELD – Solar company Green Development, Inc. presented a proposal this week for construction of 58 new parking spaces by the North Smithfield High School athletic fields – which would see the town waive all taxes and lease payments for an accompanying energy-harnessing canopy the business hopes to build there.
Members of the School Committee voted unanimously to support the plan “in concept,” following the presentation at a joint meeting with the Town Council on Monday, August 29. Chairman James Lombardi said that while more information is still needed on the project, the vote will allow Green to keep potential work on track, and move forward with any needed requests for proposals from subcontractors.
“Ultimately, what you’re getting here is a parking lot donated by Green Development,” explained company founder and CEO Marc DePasquale.
According to a presentation by Hannah Morini, director of business development for Green, the project would see the lot expanded from 58 to 116 spaces, improving safety and traffic conditions on adjacent Providence Pike. A new roof-mounted solar canopy, meanwhile, situated between 14 and 18 feet above the lot, would provide student athletes and guests with protection from inclement weather, and shade on sunny days.
The lot would be built free of charge on a currently vacant area of the school-owned property, and Green referenced plans for everything from tree removal and drainage, to striping and lighting. The parking area would become property of the school district once construction is complete, while the solar company would lease the space for the canopy for $1 a year, owning and operating a new, roughly 200-kilowatt system.
Morini said the proposed lot improvements have a $496,000 value, while the combined loss to the town of taxes on the canopy indefinitely and lease payments over 40 years would come to only $208,000.
Proponents of the project cited current challenges with access to school sports games. Green would extend the lot on the elevated area beside the football field, eliminating the need for visitors to park at the high school and middle school, where they must traverse a distance that includes staircases and a dirt path up a steep hill.
“To me, it’s like a no-brainer,” said Charles Rapoza, who noted he’s the father of two student athletes and has difficulty with the walk to their games due to an injury. “We have this beautiful facility. Added parking would be a great benefit. There’s not enough parking for the size of facility that we have here.”
Robert Gianfrancesco, a board member with the Northmen Hoops program, described the walk to the fields from the secondary lots that serve the schools as “unbearable.”
“I think the people against this don’t attend any activities here,” Gianfrancesco said.
But not all in attendance were sold on the idea. Resident Mary Cimini cited a number of town zoning and use laws, stating that the school is in a Groundwater Aquifer Protection Overlay District, and that solar systems are not permitted in areas used for public recreation or open space.
“If we are to consider the allowance of Green Development to install a roof mounted solar system, I want to be assured that the Town Council and the School Committee will have this developer/contractor apply for and be permitted for this project as all other contractors must do,” Cimini said.
After the meeting, Cimini and resident Michael Clifford also questioned why the project wouldn’t be subject to a competitive bidding process.
DePasquale said Green plans to follow all town processes and apply for any needed permits on the project.
And Lombardi later said school administration plans to look at any potential zoning or other issues prior to moving forward.
Resident Tony Guertin said that he was part of a group that previously looked at increasing the size of the parking lot.
“It’s been talked about for a long time,” Guertin said. “At the time, it was decided that, as usual, there’s no funding.”
He said that current means to access the field when the smaller lot is filled – via a dirt path and on uneven ground – was initial meant to be a temporary fix.
“It’s not paved,” Guertin said. “It’s a mistake that could be a potential liability.”
Guertin pointed to the recently completed concession stand and bathrooms by the field, built by Green Development as part of a tax agreement for their solar project on Iron Mine Hill Road, stating that the company did, “an excellent job.”
“Why not hear them?” Guertin said. “Public/private partnerships are not a unique concept.”
Speaking on behalf on the developer, Attorney John Mancini agreed with the portrayal of the project as a joint partnership between the town and the solar company.
“Green is an important member of your community,” Mancini said. “It’s going to be here for awhile.”
Councilor Kimberly Alves asked the developer if there are plans to install a traffic light by the parking lot.
“There is a lot of traffic on this street,” Alves said, referencing the road outside the middle school, where Monday’s joint meeting was held.
DePasquale said there are not, in part because, “It’s not continuous access like a mall.”
School Committee member Paul Jones suggested a traffic light could be activated just during peak usage times.
“It would increase the whole cost of the project substantially,” DePasquale responded, saying the light alone could add around $200,000 to the plan. He added that solar canopies are far more expensive to install than ground-mounted systems.
“Canopy is a very difficult project to build right now because of the economics,” said DePasquale.
The developer said the parking lot expansion could take place before the end of the current construction season, with work to begin this fall. Installing a second entrance, however, will require approval from the Rhode Island Department of Transportation, which he said will take between 8 to 12 months.
“The process in all state government right now is just really drawn out,” DePasquale said.
Jones expressed concerns about operating with a single exit, and questioned if the committee had received complete information on the proposal.
“I think there’s a lot of good in this project,” Jones said. “I think it would be great to have the expansion of the parking lot, but I don’t want to do it with incomplete information.”
Lombardi asked if the lot could be further expanded to include 150 spaces.
“We’re trying to stay in a footprint that would fit the area,” DePasquale replied, adding that his team would be willing to make improvements to the alternative dirt path, using material such as stone dust and adding lighting. “There’s not a problem making that better.”
“I think this is a great idea,” Lombardi said.
Town Council President John Beauregard, who first brought the idea to town and school officials following a conversation with Green representatives, asked it the solar array could be used to create some type of learning project for the two neighboring schools.
“We’re currently working on software,” DePasquale said. “We have to do it in a way that somebody who’s reading it can understand.”
The vote on Monday authorized school department administration to take steps to move the project forward, subject to final approval of the School Committee. The proposal will also need to go before the Town Council for authorization of the related tax treaty.