NORTH SMITHFIELD – Citing safety concerns, deficiencies in the application and non-conformance with the town’s zoning ordinances, a group of abutters has challenged Planning Board approval of a 465-foot-tall wind turbine on Old Smithfield Road.
The issue will go before the Zoning Board of Review for a public hearing on Tuesday, June 14 at 7 p.m. at Kendall Dean School.
The appeal was filed by C.O.U.R.T., Inc., or Conserve Our Unique Rural Town, a nonprofit formed in opposition to the structure proposed by Wind Energy Development, LLC. of North Kingstown on a residential plot of land owned by Ruth Pacheco.
Also signing on as aggrieved parties are abutters Leo and Sharon Mayewski, Barbara Mencarini, Camila Levy and the Souza Family Limited Partnership.
The appeal is directed at the Planning Board’s April 7 passage of WED’s application, and recommendation that the town’s Zoning Board grant the developer both a special use permit and dimensional variance.
Town laws do not currently lay out a specific process to be followed for such wind energy projects, and abutters were only made aware of the proposal once it was headed before zoning for a final OK.
If approved, opponents say that the 1.5-megawatt turbine would become the tallest structure in the state, standing on an 800-square-foot base with rotors spanning up to 1.94 acres.
Abutters reacted and organized swiftly against the proposal, and in response, the Town Council has since placed a moratorium on wind energy projects. A commission is also working on the development of an ordinance to address similar plans in the future.
But it is unclear if the council’s actions will stop the current proposal from moving forward. According to town Solicitor David Igliozzi, the decision would have no power to stop a “vested” project. Determination as to whether or not a project is vested is also handled by the Zoning Board in its capacity as the town’s Board of Appeals.
According to Zoning Board President William Juhr, both parties have reserved the right to argument on the “vesting” issue, and may do so at the appeal hearing June 14.
For now at least, COURT’s appeal, filed by three attorneys working on the case, Maureen Souza, Keith Heroux and Patrick Dowling, has put a halt to the windmill’s progress.
It lists a number of reasons detractors believe the turbine should have been subject to a higher level of Planning Board scrutiny, even under the town’s current laws. “Despite the absence of an ordinance, the board still has the authority and duty to deny the application if it can be shown that it fails to properly address the health, safety and general welfare of the public,” the document argues.
Pacheco, who owns more than 50 acres of property in the quiet residential neighborhood, has said that the turbine would allow her to keep the land as open space, rather than divide it and sell it off to developers.
A well-known local environmental activist, Pacheco has been the president as well as a member of the town’s Land Trust, a member for 10-plus years of the Conservation Commission, a Garden Club member and president, a master gardener Hall of Famer, and a board member for the Blackstone Valley Independent Business Alliance.
She was also a board member on the Valley Alliance for Smart Growth, the group whose opposition to the development now known as Dowling Village kept that project from launching for nearly a decade.
Pacheco currently operates both an herb farm and a kennel on her land, a fact opponents charge was overlooked when the turbine project was first approved by the Planning Board.
“The proposed WES will contribute an additional principal land use, further intensifying an already mixed use property,” the appeal states. “The Zoning Ordinance is quite clear that multiple land uses require more formal land development project review and approval.”
The appeal also points to industry standards, noting that the Rhode Island Office of Energy Resources recommends a setback of two feet for each foot of overall height. According to the petition, Pacheco’s property is 296 feet from an abutting lot, while the standard set back would be 930 feet.
The safety guidelines, it says, were created to not only minimize potential damage from catastrophes like tower failure, blade failure and ice throwing, but also to reduce nuisances such as noise and shadow flicker.
“There has been extensive research and reports on the negative impact to people and animals leaving near wind turbines,” said COURT President Sharon Mayewski.
“The applicant has long been in the wind energy industry, and yet submitted a proposal that does not even remotely reflect the basic sitting guidelines recommended by a variety of entities including the state of Rhode Island as well as incorporated into most municipal regulations to date,” the appeal states.
A letter to The Breeze last month from WED Project Developer Hannah Morini, meanwhile, cited the project’s environmental benefits.
“Our state energy plan says that wind power is good for Rhode Island,” wrote Morini. “Overreliance on natural gas for home heating and energy has been driven up by pipeline constraints. Local renewable energy lowers the cost of our electric grid while creating local jobs and helping the environment.”
But COURT argues that the Planning Board failed to follow standards that do exist in the town’s zoning ordinances, specifically ignoring a required standard for applicants applying for dimensional relief.
Section 6.10.2 of the town ordinance states that “structures permitted beyond the maximum height requirements shall be set back from any lot line one additional foot beyond which it exceeds the maximum height limit for the district. The maximum height in a residential district is 35 feet.
“Clearly the applicant in pursuing a height variance above the maximum 35-foot height limit, incurs a mandatory increased setback off of all respective property boundaries,” it states, arguing that an additional 430-foot setback is required by current town law.
On Tuesday, the Zoning Board will hear the arguments, and with signs on lawns across town proclaiming “No Turbine” (See Letters to the Editor, Page 17), the meeting is expected to draw in high public attendance. A Facebook page on the issue has garnered some 372 likes.
For neighbors, and many in town, it seems the battle is about protecting both their property and quality of life.
“This proposed industrial wind turbine will not benefit anyone in North Smithfield except Ruth Pacheco and her family,” said Mayewski. “How could this not have a negative impact on property values in the area as well as our ability to sell our homes in the future?”
“An industrial wind turbine which manufacturers electricity and exceeds the zoning height various by over 400 feet should not be allowed to be installed in North Smithfield Rural Residential Zone,” Mayewski said.
Pacheco was contacted for this article but opted not to comment at this time.
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