Solar projects have created a dark fissure in Johnston.
On one side of the issue, whole blocks of Johnston residents have banded together to fight solar expansion in their mostly rural neighborhoods. They’ve won the support of Town Council District 5 representative Robert J. Civetti.
On the other side of the debate stand the rest of Town Council and Johnston’s former and current mayors Polisena.
Civetti says he’s been won over by the arguments of residents living next door to proposed solar array sites. He has backed an ordinance aimed at stopping solar development in Johnston neighborhoods. The ordinance died last week, for lack of a second, following a public hearing.
The former mayor and the current mayor have reported accepting thousands of dollars from employees of the two solar companies proposing large solar field developments in Johnston’s District 5. Both have accepted numerous donations from employees of Rhode Island solar companies who have been pitching the development of wooded land zoned residential, and construction of large industrial solar arrays (some spread over acres, with thousands of panels).
Both ex-mayor Joseph M. Polisena and his son, current mayor Joseph Polisena Jr., have argued aggressively in favor of supporting solar development projects as town policy.
The two latest proposals — one by Cranston-based Green Development, and the other by Warwick-based Revity — have fallen in Civetti’s district (5), a vocal opponent of large solar fields in residential neighborhoods.
Civetti says his support of the neighborhood resident groups formed to fight the projects has angered both mayors Polisena; and the mayors have made him persona non grata in town politics. He doesn’t expect their re-election support in two years.
The Green Development project was eventually voted down, but lingers in court. The Revity project faces final approvals, but will likely pass the town’s Planning and Zoning Boards.
In 2022, Green Development pitched a plan to build five solar fields on more than 324 acres of mostly wooded land in a residential zone of the town’s western end. On April 28, hundreds of Johnston residents gathered at the Johnston Senior Center to participate in a public hearing on the proposal. The meeting dragged into the early morning hours of the next day.
Applicant Revity Energy LLC wants to build solar fields on seven Central Avenue lots at 1252-1262 Central Ave. The land is zoned R-40.
Both mayors Polisena have stated publicly that they favor solar development in residential neighborhoods over new housing construction, because solar taps the town coffers less than homes, with families (and subsequently needed roads, fire and police protection, and possibly children to add to the town’s student body).
Currently, the town’s zoning laws allow for solar development in residentially zoned areas via special-use permit. Civetti, and the more than dozen residents who spoke at last Tuesday’s Town Council meeting, support tightening up the town’s zoning laws and revising Johnston’s Comprehensive Plan, last tweaked in 2007, to close the “loophole.”
“That just added more fuel to the fire,” Civetti said. “This kid just won’t let solar go. And I’m not. It’s something we don’t want. Put it at the landfill. Put it up in industrial areas. I’m fine with that. Don’t put it behind these people’s homes … People, just, they buy in a residential area for a reason.”
On Nov. 1, 2022, Polsena Jr. addressed the town’s pending solar projects.
“I think you need to look at each individual project on its own merits,” Polisena Jr. said during a mayoral forum hosted by the Johnston Sun Rise prior to the General Election. “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 Jr. referred to the Green Development project. An appeal of the town’s zoning decision has yet to be decided in court.)
Over the past year, Polsena Jr. has commented extensively on his views regarding solar energy versus additional housing developments in town.
“I am a big supporter of renewable energy,” Polisena Jr. said during the November forum. “In the year 2100, my son will only be in his 70s. 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 … 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.”
Polisena Jr. did not attend the Jan. 10 Town Council public hearing on the solar ordinance. He was sworn in as mayor the night before.
“I would prefer non-residential development, just because the burden is less on the tax system as a whole,” Polisena Jr. said during the Nov. 1 forum. “Less cars driving on the road; particularly when you’re talking about solar. It’s less children in the school system. It’s not to say I’m against new families moving into Johnston, but I do think that the town is full. And I think that the state has a huge need to build housing, but they need to look to western Rhode Island. I think Johnston is actually the dividing line, where if you go east of Johnston, there’s not a lot of area to build. However, you go west of Johnston, there’s plenty of land for residential homes.”
Polisena Jr. has accepted in thousands in campaign contributions from employees of the solar development companies with projects pending in Johnston. Between 2019 and 2022, Polisena Jr. reported accepting at least $15,000 in campaign donations from employees of just two known solar companies with pending projects in town.
On Dec. 22, 2021, Polisena Jr. declared a $1,000 campaign donation from Mark DePasquale, CEO & Founder of Green Development. That same day, John McCauley, of Cranston, identified as a Green Development employee, also donated $1,000 to Polisena Jr.’s mayoral campaign.
On Nov. 18, 2021, Brian McGovern, of Revity Energy, donated $1,000 to Polisena Jr.’s campaign fund, according to campaign finance reports available online, posted by the Rhode Island Board of Elections (BOE).
On that same day, Corey Palumbo donated $1,000, Ralph Palumbo donated $1,000 and Ryan Palumbo donated $1,000. All three men are identified on Polisena Jr.’s campaign finance reports as employees of Revity.
On Dec. 7, 2021, Cheri Riccio, of North Scituate, another Revity employee, donated $1,000 to Polisena Jr.’s campaign fund.
Ralph Palumbo donated another $1,000 to Polisena Jr.’s campaign on Aug. 23, 2022. On that finance report, his employer is listed as “Renewable Energy.” According to the company’s website, he serves as Revity’s president.
Back in 2020, several of those same Revity employees made earlier donations to Polisena Jr.’s campaign account. On Oct. 1, 2020, Lindsay McGovern donated $1,000; Corey Palumbo, $1,000; Ralph Palumbo, $1,000; and Ryan Palumbo, $1,000; Cheri Riccio, $1,000.
The earliest stages of the proposed Revity solar farm off of Central Avenue were tentatively approved by the Planning and Zoning boards in November 2021.
Polisena Jr. has reported solar energy employee contributions as far back as 2019, while he was preparing to run for his second term on Town Council. DePasquale donated $500 to his campaign fund on May 8, 2019. On that same date, McCauley donated another $500.
The Palumbos, of Revity, also started their making donations to Polisena’s campaign fund back when he was on Town Council. On May 8, 2019, Ralph Palumbo donated $1,000 (though his employer is identified as Southern Sky Renewable Energy on the campaign finance report).
Late Tuesday evening, Polisena Jr. was asked how much, if any influence these contributions had in shaping his views regarding solar energy developments in Johnston's residentially zoned neighborhoods.
Polisena Jr. replied: “Yes, the same company that’s donated to me recently got their last 3 projects denied before our town boards. So zero influence, as it should be.”
“I believe that promises were made to developers that the solar would get passed in Johnston,” Civetti said earlier this week. “And I’ve been told that the reason they came to Johnston was because our zoning ordinance is so open and flexible, that they could get it approved in Johnston and there wouldn’t be any issues.”
As of Dec. 31, 2022, Polisena Jr. had $179,415.48 total cash in his campaign account, according to the BOE.
The Johnston Zoning Board will meet at 6 p.m., Tuesday, Feb. 7, at the Johnston Senior Center, to hold a public hearing on the preliminary plan application by Revity to “create seven road frontage lots for residential development and one larger lot for a solar field” at 1252–1262 Central Ave. The land is zoned R-40.
“Luckily there’s no woods behind my house, but I can feel for the people up there,” Civetti said.
Editor’s Note: All Rhode Island candidates for public office are required by law to file regular campaign contribution reports. The reports are public and easily viewed online. For a searchable database of candidate financial reports, go to www.ricampaignfinance.com/RIPublic/Filings.aspx.
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