The Johnston Planning Board unanimously approved the site plan pre-application review for a proposed Green Development solar array off Scituate Avenue during its meeting at the Johnston Senior Center on Tuesday night.
The debate lasted nearly an hour as attorney Frank Sciacca, representing two parties opposed to the project, and Johnston Town Planner Tom Deller spoke back and forth about the proposal’s merits and how it fits into the comprehensive plan.
Before any tension took hold, Green Development project engineer Kevin Morin offered a presentation to the board to show how the plan has been scaled back since initial discussions four months ago. The installation would rest in an R-40 residential zone, and the alterations were made to allay some of the worries abutters brought to the table.
“We think we’ve made a strong effort to try to address some of the earliest concerns we had,” Morin said. “We’re not done with that. We’ve got more work to do as we get more further into design, but just wanted to highlight those changes.”
The original concept featured 4.25 megawatts of AC solar, which was since revised down about 25 percent to 3.25 megawatts. The solar panels at first covered about 6.4 acres, but that was reduced to 4.8 acres. Morin said no buildings are required and lighting for the array has not been proposed. No wetlands have been detected in the area either.
The new site plan also calls for four times the vegetative buffer – from 25 to 100 feet – and panel setback was increased from anywhere between 51 and 91 feet. Morin’s presentation also says the project is “in compliance with all standards of the zoning ordinance.”
There was very little discussion among the board before Sciacca stepped to the podium to offer an impassioned plea to table the matter for another night. He said his position has not changed since he first spoke before them four months ago, and claimed there would be a “considerable challenge” in the legal system should the solar array come to pass.
“The crux of which is the lack of ordinances and the lack of guidance that your zoning code and your planning regulations provide,” Sciacca said. “First of all, you’re handling this as a planned review. In my opinion, based on my review of all the other towns that have addressed it, they address it as a major land development.”
He recommended that the board wait until the state completes its study on the impacts of such installations, imploring members to ask Green Development to bring more expert witness testimony to the table.
He also asserted that the proposal does not conform to the town’s comprehensive plan.
“The noise that’s put off by those transformers, we haven’t even heard what decibels they are, where they’re going to be placed,” Sciacca said. “There’s a horse farm right adjacent to this property, the impact on animals and whatnot in that surrounding area. We’ve heard nothing of that … It doesn’t meet the comprehensive plan, it will never meet the comprehensive plan. This is a residential neighborhood intended for residential development.”
Deller said he disagreed completely with Sciacca, adding that there is room for movement within the comprehensive plan to allow for such arrays. He added that the conceptual stage is used to examine how the project fits town regulations, and he saw no reason not to move the issue to the Zoning Board.
That entity would have to grant a special use permit for the installation, after which Green would come back before the Planning Board with more detailed information including engineering.
“I have seen these fields happen in many towns, people address them differently. From a plan point of view, I see this as a transitional use in the neighborhood that allows us a period of time to stabilize and look at property and have it available for future use,” Deller said. “There is room within the comprehensive plan and there is room within our zoning regulations to allow that.”
Sciacca shot back, saying there is no movement within the comprehensive plan, to which Deller replied with specific sections discussing “rural residential areas having different uses that allow economic growth.”
“Your laws have not caught up with this,” Sciacca said. “At the end of the day, this is what you live and die by … When [Deller] gets before [the judge] and suggest that, the court’s going to laugh at him, because it’s ridiculous. You have no regulations in place.”
Solicitor Joseph Ballirano said that, while Johnston doesn’t have a solar ordinance in place yet, it should not stop the Planning Board from hearing the proposal. He said the town has heard few complaints regarding solar arrays in R-40 zones.
“Sometimes people are going to disagree on these issues,” Ballirano said. “We’ve had a lot of success with solar farms in R-40s. We’ve passed as many as any community in the state.”
Sciacca warned the board, though, not to put business before community. He said the western Johnston area has “become the forgotten child of Johnston” and that the project could send the wrong message to those residents.
“This board is here to represent the people of the town of Johnston,” Sciacca said. “It is not here to represent the administration, the Town Council or any public official. I have not heard one citizen of the town of Johnston speak in favor of this plan. Not one. I’ve got several here who would speak against it. If notices go out, more would even come.”
Both Chairman Josh Laurito and Secretary Peggy A. Passarelli said they are concerned for residents and want to hear their feedback, but reiterated this was only the conceptual stage with numerous steps left to come.
“What we’re here tonight doing is basically moving forward on a concept,” Laurito said. “We’re not finalizing anything. We’re not approving anything. This isn’t a site plan. We are very concerned for the citizens of the town. We really are. That’s what we’re here for.”
“We’re laypeople. I’m not an engineer. I try to look at everything from everybody’s perspective,” Passarelli said. “We can have them come back, and if we don’t like what we hear or we don’t get the answers we want, you guys have the opportunity to speak.”