Zoners overturn planning decision to deny new solar project for Iron Mine Hill Road in N.S.

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NORTH SMITHFIELD – Members of the North Smithfield Zoning Board voted unanimously last week to overturn a decision by the Planning Board to reject a proposal for a 2.8-megawatt ground-mounted solar system on a vacant lot off of Iron Mine Hill Road.

The vote sends the project, which could see solar panels installed on 5.5 acres of a 22-acre parcel owned by Joseph and Sandra Authier, back before planners to continue proceedings.

The project, known as Islander Solar, will still require a special use permit to erect an array in a residential zone.

“The Planning Board committed clear error in denying this application,” said Attorney Kelley Morris Salvatore, who represented the developer in an appeal of planners’ decision to deny the master plan.

The Zoning Board action, issued following discussion of the case at a meeting on Tuesday, August 30, marks a reversal of a split 3-2 vote by the Planning Board in June. Planner Jeffrey Porter deemed the project inconsistent with the town’s comprehensive plan citing the goal of, “maintaining the town’s rural character,” also noting the array would interrupt a 500-acre stretch of contiguous forest.

Planners Richard Keene and Michael Fournier joined Porter in the denial.

But Morris Salvatore said the applicant only plans to clear one percent of that forest, and noted that the town’s ordinances do not address tree cutting.

“The denial of this project does not prohibit cutting down trees,” she said.

“This town has no deforesting clear-cutting ordinance,” agreed Zoning Board Chairman Robert Najarian. “We can’t judge what’s good or bad, we can only judge what is.”

Morris Salvatore also noted that Porter referred to the proposed array as a commercial endeavor in a residential zone, and said that the developer, “does not consider or offer any mitigation,” to the environmental affects the project may have.

Najarian said planners should engage the applicant on the issue of mitigation.

“There are multiple opportunities for the planning board to resolve issues that they have, and I think it would be unfair,” Najarian said of the early denial of the solar project.

The project may be back before zoners for consideration of special use permit, as the board is the authority on granting such requests.

“That’s your decision wether we meet the criteria of a special use permit,” said Morris Salvatore. “Saying, ‘absolutely no,’ is just not within their purview.”

“We’ve approved too many to count,” said Najarian of special use permits for residential solar projects. “That’s why we have the ordinance. I was on the ordinance committee that wrote the ordinance.”

Najarian noted that at the time of the denial, Planner Mark Carrulo stated the project was consistent with North Smithfield’s comprehensive plan.

“The planner is of the opinion that there is nothing wrong with this proposed use if it is granted the special use permit,” he said. “I think it’s clear that the comp. plan can be determined in multiple directions. It can take you in the direction that you may want to follow it.”

“From what I can see it is clear error and/or it’s also lack of support of the weight of the evidence,” said Najarian of issues raised in the appeal. “There is just not enough evidence here to fairly dismiss this and reject it at master plan level.”

“I feel as though the Planning Board did the best they could, but I feel as though if they looked again they might have a different opinion,” agreed () prior to a vote to grant the appeal and remand the project back to planning.

“We’re basically saying, ‘you missed on this one, try again,'” said Najarian, noting that planners could still have just cause to deny the application. “We can’t make conditions. We can only send it back.”

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