NORTH SMITHFIELD – The School Committee moved forward this week on an initiative to expand parking by the North Smithfield High School athletic fields – and potentially add a solar canopy to the lot – but the potential capital project won’t necessarily match a plan pitched last year by solar company Green Development.
Supt. Michael St. Jean said a request for proposals approved last week has three components for contractors: repaving and fixing the parking lot; installing a 60-space expansion; and adding in a solar canopy.
“It doesn’t have to be all of them,” St. Jean said. “What we’ll have is some contractors that will come through. They will take a look at the site. It’s really up to the town to figure out which direction to go.”
The decision this week comes in response to a proposal first presented by officials from Green last year, which would have seen the lot improved free of charge. In turn, the solar business was asking the town to waive all taxes and lease payments for an accompanying energy-harnessing canopy they hoped to install above a portion of the parking lot.
The proposal brought out testimony both from parents who hoped to see safety improvements by the fields, and others opposed to the initiative for reasons including protection of water resources.
“I took a path which I don’t think will make anybody happy because there are very strong opinions on every aspect of this project,” St. Jean said.
“Solar canopies, per our own zoning map and ordinances, are not allowed at the schools, whether they be ground or rooftop mounted,” said resident Mary Cimini last week. “The area surrounding NSHS has long been used to farm by the Goodwin Family and is located near Todds Pond, Primrose Pond and the Audubon Fort Wildlife Refuge.”
“Our most precious commodity, water, is under attack in North Smithfield,” Cimini told the committee.
Cimini’s comments came within days of news that recent tests by the Rhode Island Department of Health showed the school’s drinking water contains per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances – or PFAS – beyond the new statewide standard. A law passed last year mandates that public water systems test for the chemicals, found in many different household products, and known to cause cancers and other health issues.
According to the new law, systems that test above 20 parts per trillion must notify their customers and enter an agreement with RIDOH to remediate the impacted well, and the water system serving the high school and middle school tested at 21 ppt.
In a notice sent out to parents and staff, on Friday, July 21, St. Jean explained.
“For very high levels of PFAS, RIDOH requires that people not drink the water,” he notes. “The level of PFAS in our drinking water is not high enough for RIDOH to require that people not drink it but we must, and will, remediate it.”
“We are taking this matter very seriously and are working closely with RIDOH to finalize and get approval for a plan to fix the PFAS levels as soon as possible,” St. Jean wrote. “We will share updates with you throughout this process.”
At the meeting on Tuesday, July 18, committee members assured Cimini that the town would follow a process for the parking lot project, meanwhile, that will include all zoning and state permitting standards.
“Everything would have to go through zoning,” St. Jean said. “They’d have to have all the proper permits and all of that.”
Committee member William Connell noted that the Zoning Board has rejected plans put forth by the school department in the past.
“It didn’t go forward,” he said, adding of the latest project, “It doesn’t circumvent any of the processes that we’d have to follow.”
St. Jean noted that the project could be eligible for reimbursement from the Rhode Island Department of Education through the state revolving fund.
But ultimately, as a large capital project, the authority on how to move forward will rest with the Town Council, he said.
“We would be passing it on to the town,” said St. Jean. “I can make recommendations, but ultimately, it’s the School Committee, the Town Council and the community that decide what is the best use of our funds.”
And he noted that the lot improvements don’t necessarily require a solar component.
“This RFP isn’t designed to force one thing over another – it’s to give options,” he said. Still, St. Jean added, “I like the thought of solar.”