Special meeting to address solar moratorium

By DANIEL KITTREDGE
Posted 1/23/19

By DANIEL KITTREDGE A broad agreement exists that Cranston should put the brakes on new large-scale solar projects through a moratorium as it revisits its existing rules. Some of the details, however, remained uncertain following the Jan. 17 meeting of

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Special meeting to address solar moratorium

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A broad agreement exists that Cranston should put the brakes on new large-scale solar projects through a moratorium as it revisits its existing rules.

Some of the details, however, remained uncertain following the Jan. 17 meeting of the City Council’s Ordinance Committee – and the full council was set to meet for a special session this week to finalize the measure.

The committee gave its unanimous backing to an ordinance outlining the proposed moratorium, which was amended to last nine months rather than the originally proposed six months following a motion from Ward 4 Councilman Edward Brady.

Another attempt to amend the proposal, however, drew concerns that the city could open itself up to a legal challenge – and prompted Council President Michael Farina to call the special session for Jan. 23 in the interest of acting quickly.

At the heart of the issue is at what point a project is deemed vested, and what language – if any – the measure ought to include regarding that question.

Farina at one point sought to amend language in the ordinance to make master plan approval from the Planning Commission – rather than the issuance of a certificate of completeness from planning staff – the point at which large-scale solar projects would be deemed “vested” and not subject to the moratorium.

He later withdrew the motion, however, based on concerns over whether the change would create unwanted issues – and following assurances from the legal counsel a prominent solar developer that a legal challenge would ensue.

“My goal is not to stop the Natick Avenue solar farm, to be perfectly frank,” Farina said, referring to a proposed 8.1-megawatt solar installation proposed by Southern Sky Renewable Energy RI LLC that is currently before the Planning Commission.

Farina said he had anticipated the Natick Avenue project would receive master plan approval at the Planning Commission’s Jan. 8 meeting. Instead, the matter was continued to Feb. 5 as planning officials work to incorporate new conditions for the project. He said he views using a certificate of completeness as the vesting point as “very loose,” and aimed to prevent developers of large solar projects from circumventing the impending moratorium.

City Planner Jason Pezzullo said the use of a certificate of completeness as the demarcation point is, in his view, “consistent with state law.”

A certificate of completeness, he said, is issued by staff once an application has been deemed ready to begin the process of scheduling a public hearing and undergoing Planning Commission consideration.

“Once you certify that certificate of completeness, state law then has a clock, and you have 90 days from the time of completeness to advertise those public hearings and render a decision … That’s why I thought that was the most realistic and reasonable scenario for someone coming to the city,” he said.

Pezzullo also said the Planning Department was “very clear with everyone who came to the city that we were not going to entertain any kind of vesting conversation for a pre-application.”

Attorney Robert Murray, representing Southern Sky, said the proposed amendment would amount to “singling out the Natick Avenue solar project.”

“If in fact you use that master plan language as suggested by the amendment … The only project that amendment applies to is Natick Avenue,” he said.

He later added, “If the language says you need master plan approval, this ordinance will be subject to challenge and it will be quick, it will be swift, and it will be potential damages being sought from the city.”

Citywide Councilman Steven Stycos called the moratorium a “good idea” but questioned the inclusion of any language in the ordinance regarding what projects are considered vested.

“My point is not to try … to establish a bright line, or that there is a bright line. My point is that that issue should not be in the moratorium ordinance that we pass,” he said. “It shouldn’t be in the ordinance. We should be talking about a moratorium, not getting into the weeds as to what’s vested and what’s not vested.”

Ward 6 Councilman Michael Favicchio, who chairs the Ordinance Committee, said the city would be “on thin ice trying to stop something that’s already gotten a certificate of completeness.”

“Changing the rules in the middle of the game, that’s the only problem I have,” he said.

Members of the city solicitor’s office also advised that the proposed amendment to make master plan approval the vesting point could lead to a challenge.

“No one really anticipated the growth of these solar farms and the popularity in such a short period of time,” Evan Kirschenbaum said. “Now we're reacting to it, and we do the best we can.”

Some support was voiced for the proposed amendment.

“There is a process in place. There is a reason why master plan approval is part of that process,” Natick Avenue Jessica Marino said.

The moratorium itself also drew support from members of the public.

“I understand that renewable energy is a really important initiative for the state of Rhode Island … I can’t stress strongly enough how much this moratorium is needed,” Vaughn Lane resident Jessica Salter told the committee. “While none of us are opposed to renewable energy, the manner in which these projects have been allowed to move forward is unacceptable.”

Douglas Doe, a resident of Lippitt Avenue, urged council members to refer to “solar energy systems” rather than “solar farms” for official purposes.

“We don’t call them solar farms. Developers call them solar farms because they're trying to sell a product, an image,” he said.

Doe called the city’s existing commercial solar guidelines a “complete failure.”

“Hopefully we can take the time to get it done right … It needs to be open and transparent,” he said.

Tom Wojick, a member of the Cranston Action Network, urged council members to extend the moratorium to one year. Six months, he said, is “nothing.”

“We don’t have time to seriously look at the issue and have good public input,” he said.

On behalf of Stycos, who does not sit on the Ordinance Committee, Ward 5 Councilman Chris Paplauskas made a successful motion amending the moratorium ordinance to include wording regarding a review of herbicides and other chemicals used in commercial solar developments.

“I think that issue needs to be discussed,” Stycos said.

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