By JOHN HOWELL Faced with arguments that a proposed ordinance to regulate solar panels could boomerang, resulting in their uncontrolled proliferation in residential areas with the loss of trees, along with fears the law could be legally challenged, the
Faced with arguments that a proposed ordinance to regulate solar panels could boomerang, resulting in their uncontrolled proliferation in residential areas with the loss of trees, along with fears the law could be legally challenged, the City Council voted Monday voted to start the hearing process over again.
The ordinance, which gained first passage after extensive debate last month, would have allowed solar arrays to be built by right in commercial and industrial zones. That aspect of the legislation was embraced, as were efforts to promote solar arrays in general businesses zones and in particular solar canopies over vast parking lots like that of the Warwick Mall.
But Jane Austin, a steadfast critic of the ordinance who has talked extensively with its chief architect, Principal Planner Lucas Murray, argued an overlay provision that would give the council oversight in residential areas and an opportunity for the preservation of open space would “open large swaths of residential [land] to solar.”
She called the legislation a more “permissive rather than a precautionary approach” to regulating solar development. She reasoned that economic incentives to properly site solar could have “unintended consequences.”
Early in the evening, even before the council meeting, Philip D’Ercole stood at the podium waiting to be heard. When he finally got to speak, D’Ercole, facilitator of Friends of Warwick Ponds, said the ordinance would impact the city for decades and was too broad and expansive.
Murray, who has worked on the ordinance for the past two years and has made four presentations to the Planning Board as well as presentations to the Warwick Land Trust and Wildlife and Conservation Commission, said Tuesday “we go back and restart on notification.” He said he does not plan to redraft the legislation, but will do some “cleaning up” of the language. He said his goal at this point is to better articulate why the city needs this ordinance in its “tool box.”
“There was bad information thrown out there,” he said of the meeting, citing claims the ordinance would open all residential property to solar arrays.
Whether the ordinance could be contested, or in fact whether the council’s action was legal, was argued principally on three fronts. Richard Langseth noted that since May the council has not voted on the minutes from its prior meetings because the city clerk is short staffed and they are not available. He said the failure to post the minutes is in violation of the open meetings act and that he has filed a complaint with the attorney general.
Ward 5 Councilman Ed Ladouceur, who prior to the meeting disclosed he would vote against second passage, questioned whether the public had been notified of the ordinance. Specifically, he cited a provision in state law for a registry for persons to be notified when zone changes are being discussed. The city does not have a registry.
Solicitor to the council, Kyla Pecchia, said the ordinance was properly noticed as it had been advertised in the Warwick Beacon for three consecutive weeks and properly posted 48 hours prior to the meeting. Also, it was argued that the ordinance was not accompanied by a fiscal note showing financial impact of solar arrays either in revenues or costs.
Ward 2 Councilman Jeremy Rix thought the absence of a fiscal note was sufficient to table second passage, but his motion before the three-member Ordinance Committee did not gain a second and consequently failed. While Murray sees benefits to the law, such as the gift of land to the city after the life of a solar array (projected at 35 years) depending on the agreement reached with a developer, there is also the loss of trees and the benefits they yield. Placing a monetary amount to these benefits and costs would be difficult, he said.
After more than two hours of testimony and a prolonged recess, Ordinance Committee Chair Ward 8 Councilman Anthony Sinapi reconvened the meeting proposing a one-sentence amendment to the ordinance. The amendment did not spell out what it would change, but because it changes the name it requires the ordinance to be advertised again before the council takes up first passage. The committee approved the amendment followed by Sinapi’s motion to table to the Aug. 30 meeting.
City Council President Steve McAllister assured Michelle Komar, who argued the process was flawed because there is no registry, that a registry would be properly enacted.
Nathan Cornell, vice chair of the Warwick School Committee who has done extensive research on Warwick woodlands, talked about the abutting properties of the Little Rhody Beagle Club and the Kent County YMCA, which is under consideration as a site for a solar array. He said he found a stand of American beech on the Y property and that some trees had been “girdled,” which would eventually kill them.
Reached Tuesday, Steven O’Donnell, CEO of the Greater Providence YMCA, confirmed that the Y is looking at using about six acres for solar. He said he recently walked the property and it is in the same condition as it was five years ago.
“It is unfortunate that anyone can say anything without substantiating it,” he said.
Greg Lucini, president and CEO of ISM Solar who advanced a proposal for a 13.5-megawatt solar farm on 40 acres of the 94-acre Little Rhody Beagle Club in 2019 and remains interested in the development, said he is awaiting passage of an ordinance before advancing a plan.
He dismissed allegations of using chemicals to kill trees and in a statement submitted to the Beacon said, “We cannot speak to how trees may have been damaged in the past, but no trees have ever been ‘girdled’ to facilitate the development of a solar array on any of our projects, including Warwick.”
As for the ordinance, he said, it is “very restrictive and creates a permitting hurdle that provides more protection for abutters, trees, wildlife and the community than any other solar ordinance we have seen.”
“It turned into a whole thing about the process,” McAllister said yesterday of the hearing. Based on that, he said, he thought it was time “to take a pause” and focus on the ordinance.