NORTH SMITHFIELD – Saying that the town’s current laws do not adequately address the threat posed by the development of wind energy, the North Smithfield Town Council unanimously passed an emergency ordinance that places a moratorium on the creation of turbines Monday night.
The decision, effective immediately, comes in reaction to massive opposition from residents to a plan for building a 465-foot wind turbine on Old Smithfield Road on a property owned by Ruth Pacheco. The proposal, submitted by Wind Energy Development LLC received preliminary approval from the town’s Planning Board, and was headed before the Zoning Board of Review for a final OK when neighbors were first made aware of the deal.
They’ve since formed a citizens’ group named COURT Inc., or Conserve Our Unique Rural Town, and on Monday, members came out in droves to ask the Town Council to take action. A flyer from the group pointed out that the structure would be the tallest in the state, and said that its rotors could span up to 1.94 acres.
The energy group WED was seeking a dimensional variance of 465 feet to allow the structure in a rural agricultural zone.
“I was very shocked to learn the Planning Board approved this 465-foot project,” said Sharon Mayewski, an abutter to the 50-acre farm where developers hope to build the structure. “It’s higher than the Superman building, and this is a rural residential neighborhood.”
“Has anybody done any studies?” Mayewski asked. “We live on a historic, country road.”
Planning Board member Gary Palardy defended the group’s decision, saying the board didn’t have many options in issuing the approval.
“You need the right tools to do a job,” Palardy said, urging the council to “have a serious conversation about putting a wind ordinance in place.”
Town Planner Robert Ericson pointed out that previous councils more than once commissioned groups to look at developing a plan to address wind energy.
“The Town Council has commissioned four versions of the Ad Hoc Ordinance Review Committee over the past six years,” Ericson said. “Two worked extensively on a wind energy ordinance, but none submitted a draft.”
The town’s Conservation Commission came out against the current proposal for a 1.5 megawatt turbine, and recommended the moratorium.
The developer has estimated that the turbine would create noise at around 55 decibels, the same level as a normal conversation and that it would kill around three birds a year.
On Monday, Chairman Paul Soares delivered his board’s opinion that the project should be put on hold.
“This will allow time for an independent study of the environmental impacts, and the creation of an ordinance regulating such structures in our town,” Soares said.
The ordinance passed by the council in a 4-0 vote on Monday but is good for 180 days to give the town time to, “develop reasonable ordinances governing the location and operations of such wind power developments.”
It states, in part “there is a strong likelihood that all areas of the town may be subjected to this development pressure due to the amount of undeveloped land, the nonexistence of any regulations or restrictions on locations of wind power developments and the demand for such wind power developments.”
But according to town Solicitor David Igliozzi, it is unclear if the plan for Pacheco’s land will be stopped by the emergency law.
“If it’s vested then it would not stop it,” Igliozzi told the council. “That decision is not for the council to make. It’s subject to a due process analysis.”
The solicitor said that Section 13.4 of the town’s zoning ordinances discusses if a project is vested.
It states, “Upon Planning Board review of a project and written decision setting forth their recommendation, the Town Council shall deem an application for amendment substantially complete. The zoning ordinance of 1973 as amended to date will apply to the project, even if at some later date, but prior to the project receiving complete or final approval, the zoning ordinance and/or zoning map is changed.”
The issue is also governed by Rhode Island General Law 45-24-44, which states, “A zoning ordinance provides protection for the consideration of applications for development that are substantially complete and have been submitted for approval to the appropriate review agency in the city or town prior to enactment of the new zoning ordinance or amendment.”
Igliozzi said it is up to the Zoning Board under its authority as the Board of Appeals to determine if the application is vested.
“The council did what they could do under the law: issue a moratorium,” Igliozzi said. “New applications can’t come in. Now it’s up to the board to make a ruling.”
Further clouding the question of how the town will handle the turbine plan for Old Smithfield Road is an appeal of the Planning Board decision on the project filed by abutters. Such an appeal, the solicitor said, stays all other action, and a public hearing on the project originally scheduled before the Zoning Board for Tuesday, May 24 has been canceled.
The abutters’ challenge of the planning decision, it seems, is also an issue to go before zoners through their capacity as the Board of Appeals.
To address the larger issue of establishing general rules for wind turbine proposals, the council has asked the town’s ad hoc ordinance review committee to create a recommendation for a new ordinance.
Councilor Anthony Soly was not present for the council’s Monday night meeting.
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