For just a moment Tuesday night, Town Council chambers fell silent.
Town Council Member Robert J. Civetti made a motion to approve an ordinance crafted to temporarily halt solar development in Johnston’s residential neighborhoods.
He looked to his fellow council members — Lauren A. Garzone to his left (District 2), President Robert V. Russo in the center (District 4), and across the room to Linda Folcarelli (District 1) and Alfred T. Carnevale (District 3) — for a second.
The other four council members said nothing. The audience started to bubble.
Civetti’s motion eventually died for lack of a second. No vote would occur. The council members avoided taking a position on an issue that has motivated entire neighborhoods in Johnston to band together, hire legal counsel, and attempt to fight several proposed solar array projects pitched for residentially zoned wooded areas in town.
The issue is complicated. The ordinance wasn’t expected to stop pending solar projects, according to Civetti. It was aimed at future projects that may exploit a loophole in Johnston’s zoning laws, which seems to allow a special-use permit for industrial solar arrays in otherwise residential neighborhoods.
More than a dozen Johnston residents lined up to speak in favor of the ordinance.
Only Civetti and Russo asked questions of the speakers, and the town’s Assistant Solicitor Dylan Conley. Garzone, Folcarelli and Carnevale said nothing during the hearing. They stated no position. They asked no questions.
Residents have been urging town planning officials to update Johnston’s outdated Comprehensive Plan (last tweaked in 2007), which doesn’t address modern solar arrays or their construction in Johnston’s residential neighborhoods.
“If you think about any city or town’s growth over time, basically what happens over time, is town’s grow,” Conley said. “More things get built. What you see as the result of a comprehensive plan process, as a general rule of thumb, are an increase in the amount of space that’s available for commercial uses; and an increase in residential density. So what happens as a result of the comprehensive plan process is almost never a restriction on uses in areas, but a process that identifies areas that are more ripe for growth … Does a moratorium lead to the comprehensive plan process, which leads to restrictions? I would guard people against that interpretation. Because it is not up to the town of Johnston unilaterally.”
The state has final say over the town’s comprehensive plan, according to Conley. Conley told Town Council that the ordinance could lead to liability and litigation.
Summit Street resident James McHale stood to speak. He said he has worked in construction and for utility companies. He referenced the Iron Mine Hill Road solar development in North Smithfield. He said he doesn’t want to see that kind of development in Johnston and urged Town Council to enact the ordinance.
“I like solar energy, but boy is it ugly … I don’t see any plan,” he said. “Plastic fires, they don’t go out with water … you need foam. You think about that. It was dry this past summer … if it was to catch on fire, it’s going to burn for days. It’s going to be national news.”
When his motion went without a second, Civetti asked Conley if there was any way they could still take a vote.
“There is no vote when there is no second,” Conley replied. “So procedurally it dies.”
“So basically it’s a four-to-one against, because without getting a second,” Civetti started to say, explaining the situation to the audience.
“There is no vote,” Conley interrupted him.
From the audience, one woman cried out: “Somebody please!”
Others in the crowd followed:
“This town will never change.”
“You should be ashamed of yourself.”
“Not one of you represent the town,” said Paul Zanecchin. He stood up and started to walk out.
As the council adjourned the meeting, a line of taxpayers walked out of the council meeting, angry and vocal.
“Anybody want to buy a house?” yelled Catherine Phillips, of Wood Drive.
Johnston’s new mayor, Joe Polisena Jr., who was sworn in the night before, did not attend Tuesday’s public hearing and Town Council meeting.