NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — The Planning Commission Tuesday voted 4-0 to accept the findings of fact for a proposed 50-megawatt, freestanding solar project on Dry Bridge Road.
The board stopped short of a formal decision until its next meeting, scheduled for Oct. 16, so planning staff, along with Town Solicitor Matthew Callaghan and Town Engineer Kim Weigand, may discuss figures on a surety bond or “other financial instrument.” That commitment would go toward the eventual decommissioning of the array.
Commission Chairman Jim Grundy recused himself from discussion on the matter.
Attorney Robert Craven, Energy Development Partners CEO Frank Epps and engineer Christine Shea were available for the development plan review hearing. The project would span 146 of the 206 acres on the property, which currently supports Dry Bridge Sand & Stone Inc.
A 6-foot chain-link fence will surround the array, and preliminary wetlands approval has been granted by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. There will also be a 200-foot minimum setback required, as the project sits near a single-family residential zone.
The surety bond, or other financial arrangement, was one of many conditions that would allow the project to advance past its plan review phase. Other requirements recommended by the Planning Department included a 50-foot vegetative buffer along the property line of abutting homes on Bay Farm Road and prohibiting the use of fertilizers, herbicides and chemicals.
The bond request was the only stipulation that prevented final approval Tuesday. Planning and Development Director Nicole LaFontaine said she wanted more time to discuss an appropriate monetary figure to accompany the financial attachment.
“I think we need to do research with other towns and the people in the industry to understand what we should be requesting and would come back to you with that information, [rather] than set something without background on it,” she said.
Epps said his company will own the land upon which the array will sit. However, another company will serve as the long-term owner of the solar facility. He said there is a tentative agreement with Constellation Energy, and decommissioning the project will be attached to the lease agreement.
The commission wanted the surety bond or other financial piece attached to ensure a commitment to taking down the facility. There were several other conditions the board added as well.
There was a recommendation to mix grass and pollinator plants on the site, which Commissioner Paul Dion called an “important benefit of solar farms.” Also requested was that the land be returned to its “natural state” once the site was decommissioned, but that was amended to require revegetation of “anything disturbed by the decommissioning.”
The commission also sought a pre-construction meeting and DEM approval for the entire project.
Commissioner Patricia Nickles expressed concern that no abutters were present during the meeting, a stark contrast to a pre-application hearing earlier in the year for a solar project proposed by TurningPoint Energy. That discussion had to be postponed because the room overflowed with abutters and residents.
However, the Dry Bridge application differs in significant ways, Town Council President Richard Welch said.
He said the Dry Bridge project is a “totally different situation” than the TurningPoint Energy proposal for a 32.7-megawatt solar installation off Shermantown and Old Tower Hill roads. That project never advanced past pre-application.
Welch attended a Sept. 6 abutters meeting, which was held at Epps’ request and during which concerns were raised.
“I didn’t witness any negative feedback,” Welch said. “I think the people there have lived with something that is not as desirable as what they’re going to end up with if this goes through … The other folks were concerned about wildlife and trees. None of that exists here.”
Epps said people from approximately 12 residences attended the meeting early in September, which he said likely explained why none were present at the development plan review Tuesday.
Epps said he went door-to-door at abutting households handing out pamphlets. He fielded questions at the gathering, telling the community that there will be no dust created and addressing what type of buffers will be in place.
“At the end of the discussion, I had one lady come up to me and say, ‘My china cabinet’s not going to be rattling any more. I’m very, very happy about that,’” he said. “So, I think one of the reasons why we do not have a full house here is because this is an improvement on the property and that we have openly gone after abutters to talk with them, to listen to their fears, and we do this in every single project we have.”