As legal challenges to last year’s rejection of a large solar farm project in Johnston linger in court, Johnston’s Zoning Board expects to hear a new, yet familiar proposal on July 27.
A group of Johnston homeowners, a former candidate for mayor and a sitting Town Councilor have all joined the chorus of concerns as a portion of the project submitted and voted down last year seems to be slated to appear for re-consideration next week.
Under the “New Business” portion of the July 27 Zoning Board meeting agenda, a “Petition of Johnston Winsor III, LLC: Applicant, The Steere Family Trust, Owner for 112 Winsor Ave. (AP 59 Lot 15, zoned R40)” appears.
The “applicant seeks a special use variance to propose a ground-mounted solar array and associated improvements.”
Johnston residents packed the Johnston Senior Center on Thursday night, April 28, 2022, for a marathon Zoning Board meeting that lasted until 2 a.m. the next morning. Ultimately, the concerned residents scored a victory as the board denied proposals from Cranston-based Green Development to build five new solar fields in residential neighborhoods in western Johnston.
“The town’s Zoning Board once again hearing an application on Winsor III Solar Farm Proposal that will consume a large forested Area in District 5,” said Town Council member representing District 5 Robert Civetti. “People need to know that only one year of time has passed since our Marathon Zoning meeting which lasted over eight hours and was attended by over 100 angry residents, the Zoning Board and Green Development is bringing this project back to the table.”
Civetti cried foul, saying it’s too soon for the project to re-appear for consideration.
“The Town’s zoning Ordinance is clear that a project cannot be heard again until two years has passed unless significant changes have been made to the plan and in that event a 1-year wait period is applied,” Civetti argued earlier this week. “I am by no means an expert on the reviewing these plans but there does not appear to be a significant change to these plans since the last time they were presented. The residents need to know that this is back in front of the Zoning Board and that one of the Zoning Board members that voted against this project last time is conveniently no longer a member of this Board.”
Civetti tried unsuccessfully to get his fellow Town Council members to approve an ordinance that would have stemmed solar development in town until the town-wide Comprehensive Plan could be updated to reflect modern solar projects and their place in town. The ordinance died for lack of a second despite vocal community support.
Johnston Mayor Joseph M. Polisena Jr., a solar power development proponent, expects changes in the new solar proposal.
“I would say if they’re going back to the Zoning Board it’s with a new plan,” Polisena said Wednesday afternoon. “Since there’s not much else that can change, the new plan is probably smaller in size and may be different in layout. There is nothing to legally prevent them from proposing a new plan.”
Last November, in a mayoral forum hosted by the Johnston Sun Rise, Polisena discussed last year’s solar farm rejection and future solar development in town.
The forum’s second question asked the following: “A large solar development was pitched for Johnston’s west end. Residents banded together and have been temporarily successful blocking the industrial solar field. Was that project a good fit for Johnston? How should Johnston treat future solar field proposals?”
“I think you need to look at each individual project on its own merits,” Polisena said on Nov. 1, 2022. “And I think that the abutting residents and the residents within the surrounding area should have the final say, as what happened in the specific case you are talking about.”
Polisena has accepted thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from Rhode Island solar energy companies, including Green Energy.
“I am a big supporter of renewable energy; in the year 2100, my son will only be in his 70s,” Polisena said in November. “I think that’s something that we really need to move on. But I will say, and again the residents in that area didn’t want that and I respect their decision, but that doesn’t mean that residents in other areas would not prefer solar to increased homes. And one thing that I just would like to address, and I try to have this conversation with people, when they see woods, they think open space. And it’s not. Most of it is zoned residential. And the town, nor anyone else has the legal authority to stop any developer or any contractor to build houses — they have to conform within the lot specifications — on that residential property.”
Johnston resident Karen Cappelli Chadwick ran, unsuccessfully, against Polisena, in last fall’s mayor’s race. She plans to attend the July 27 meeting.
“While the first solar farm proposal is making its way through the court system, Green submitted a new plan abutting the Rollingwood Estates, Hopkins Avenue and Winsor Avenue properties,” she warns. “It is the largest solar array of their initial proposal.”
“In the eleventh hour of a hotly contested hearing last year, the zoning board voted ‘no’ to this truly awful proposal,” she wrote. “The residents who fought this were relieved, but in no way were they thinking this was over. And it is not.”
The July 27 meeting is scheduled to start at 6:30 p.m. at the Johnston Senior Center, 1291 Hartford Ave.
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