Council, mayor pave way for Pine Hill solar project

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The Johnston Town Council on Sept. 9 unanimously approved a resolution authorizing a 25-year payment in lieu of taxes, or PILOT, agreement between Mayor Joseph Polisena and Pine Hill Solar Partners regarding a proposed solar energy facility.

The project would be located approximately 90 acres in size and sit adjacent to Cross Road near Pine Hill Road and Michelle Way in what is now a heavily wooded area. Pine Hill Solar Partners is a Delaware-based company with a primary location in West Lebanon, New Hampshire.

Polisena said during an interview with the Sun Rise Tuesday morning at City Hall that he was able to secure an extra $5,000 – in addition to the $24,995 per year PILOT agreement – that will go toward scholarships for Johnston High School students.

Since the town cannot tax the applicants on real or personal property, the solar project will be taxed annually at a rate of $5 per kilowatt, for 4,999 kilowatts across 19,000 panels.

Polisena said the solar array is his preferred alternative to the owner, Providence Water, selling the land to a developer who chooses to erect homes on the land. He said with the average of 2.3 children per home, it could add hundreds of kids to the town’s school system and necessitate a tax increase.

“To me, I like solar panels and renewable green energy – whether it’s wind turbines [or panels] – because we do our part for the green energy, plus as I said, these are less houses they can build in the town,” Polisena said. “We’re doing good stuff for the environment, we’re doing good stuff for our children with scholarships, and like I said, it keeps us on the map as far as being a green energy town.”

Attorney Joseph Brennan represented the applicant during the council meeting, saying the PILOT agreement was “pretty standard.” He said Pine Hill is still awaiting its Department of Environmental Management wetlands permit, the only remaining obstacle to obtaining a building permit from the town.

Brennan said Pine Hill hopes to break ground in October if everything goes as planned. Solicitor Dylan Conley said his office proposed a litany of changes, and they were all accepted and worked into the PILOT agreement.

“The PILOT agreement meets all state requirements, and it is as counsel stated, very, very, very comparable to other PILOT agreements we’ve done with solar companies,” Conley told the council.

Polisena used colorful language to emphasize that he was following state law when agreeing to the PILOT, rather than exempting Pine Hill from taxes on his own.

“Before the malcontents and misfits say, ‘Oh, yeah, he’s signing agreements for tax stabilization.’ This is by law. This is a state law that we followed,” he said. “When you put more kids in the school system, if they built, say, 80 houses, your taxes are definitely going to go up. So this basically is the one area where you can stabilize the taxes by having the solar panels, which is basically just a passive type of thing where it just sits there.”

Polisena said adding homes as opposed to solar panels would increase traffic in the area as well, and that the project should allow the region to keep its aesthetic.

“If you’re looking at 80 houses, you’re probably looking at another 160 cars,” he said. “If they’ve got older children then obviously there’ll be a third car. This kind of keeps the area rural, so to speak.”

Polisena said he has had ongoing conversations with a few different solar companies over the past few months, including Pine Hill. He said that, despite continuing to solicit offers from developers, he doesn’t think the town will run out of space to host green projects like Pine Hill.

He teased that there are more plans in the future, whether they are solar farms or wind turbines, but declined to go any further on details.

“We’re doing our part,” Polisena said. “I think it’s great that we’re doing our part for the renewable energy, and as I said, in my opinion, I’d rather see that there then houses.”

He did say that he wants to continue including additional payments that will be used toward scholarships in green energy agreements down the line. The mayor hopes to have upwards of $750,000 secured for scholarships by the end of his tenure in 2022, up about $125,000 from the current figure.

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