EXETER– Though most of Exeter’s town council meeting Monday mostly revolved around public hearings on two proposed changes to the town’s renewable energy ordinances, both hearings were tabled for further review. More than 100 residents turned out for meeting, with many on both sides of the proposed amendments.
The hearings pertained to proposed changes to the town’s solar and wind ordinances, both of which, if had been approved, would have opened the door to large scale developments of renewable energy across the town.
First was a proposed amendment to the code of ordinances regarding zoning of wind energy conversion systems, which would end a moratorium on the development of wind turbines. The proposed amendment would open up just about every district to be made available for wind turbine installation.
Residents like Gina Thurn and William Stamp were quick to point out the economic and environmental benefits of ending the moratorium.
“The fact remains that wind turbines will be visible to someone somewhere. If you accept wind turbines, you accept that fact,” Thurn said. “I feel benefits of wind energy are far greater than the detriment of sight.”
Stamp, a farmer, highlighted the benefits wind energy would have in combatting the effects of climate change.
“Climate change has given us a shorter season,” he said. “So you have to have another tool in the toolbox in order to help yourselves stay in business, if this will continue.”
However, resident Scott Millar pointed out that, before the council could vote on the amendment, it would first have to seek the planning board’s approval.
“There has to be a written advisory opinion from the board going through the comprehensive plan indicating how this ordinance is consistent with the town’s comprehensive plan,” he said. “In the event there is no advisory opinion indicating that this is consistent with the town plan, I would submit that this ordinance has to be withdrawn or tabled for now until such an opinion is reached.”
In short, the town’s comprehensive plan is to “maintain rural Exeter and the unique place that is created by that rural sense of place.”
Millar’s comments led to the council asking town planner Ashley Sweet whether or not the planning board was in favor of the proposed amendment, which Sweet said it was not.
After reminding the council that the planning board had developed the proposed changes to the wind ordinance at the behest of the council, new concerns were raised.
“We drafted an ordinance and then requests by the council were made to change items,” she said. “The planning board is not in favor of having wind permitted in every district in town. That’s not the original ordinance we sent you. Those were changes that were requested and we made them because it has to come to you for public hearing.”
“I would say it’s questionable at this point whether it’s in compliance,” she continued. “I think the planning board has some concerns about allowing utility scale wind turbines in all zoning districts.
Sweet also said the planning board’s main concern was that, due to “a lot of things happening at the state level regarding renewable energy,” the amendment was being pushed through too quickly.
Last year, Governor Gina Raimondo announced a goal to increase Rhode Island’s clean energy output to 1,000MW by 2020, and reach 20,000 clean energy jobs in the process, an ambitious goal which has set several towns on the hunt for ways to reach it.
“The planning board would not be opposed to taking another look at this if there are concerns from the residents, if there are concerns with the council, we’d be happy to do some more work on it,” she added.
Council president Kevin McGovern recommended the town close the hearing and reopen it after reviewing the planning board’s suggestions and councilor Calvin A. Ellis agreed, sensing the planning board was not “comfortable” with the proposed amendment.
“I think if they have this back in their hands again, let’s see if they can come back to us with something they think is appropriate,” Ellis said.
After the council voted to close the public hearing and reopen it at a later date, the council moved on to the second public hearing on a proposed amendment to a renewable energy ordinance, this one solar. The proposal was put forward by Green Development, LLC, an RI based solar energy company.
According to the proposal, Green Development is seeking to develop 65 MW of solar generation in Exeter through the development of numerous sites in town. Part of their proposal to do so is to amend the town’s zoning ordinance to remove the requirement of a special use permit (SUP) for properties within 6 miles of Lafayette substation and greater than 27 acres.
The planning board was against this proposed amendment as well, sending a lengthy response in February detailing concerns raised by the proposal’s scope and ambiguity.
“The proposed zone change definitively affects far more lots than Green Development would require to complete the project and there is a large possibility for unintended consequences under that circumstance,” the board wrote in their response.
“What properties are included? Where are they? How many are there? What exactly is the PILOT program being offered to the Town for tax dollars? What exactly is the scholarship fund we have heard about? How are we ensuring that the jobs really are being filled by Exeter residents as we have been told?” the board asked.
The board ultimately voted unanimously that the proposed zone change amendment was inconsistent with the town’s comprehensive plan.
Green Development’s initial proposal opened up 129 new parcels of land to possible development without the need of an SUP. However at Monday’s meeting, the company’s attorney, John Mancini, said that due to concerns raised by the planning board, the proposal was changed to only apply to 15 parcels of land.
“What we’re providing to the town council this evening is a revised zoning ordinance amendment. Rather than looking at it from 10,000 feet in the air, we’ve zoomed in a little bit. And we’ve taken the 129 lots and really identified 15 lots […] that are most practical and most feasible,” Mancini said.
But this sudden change to the proposal, without notice to the council or planning board, only added more problems to the proceedings.
“The town council is, by law, required to [first go to the planning board] to determine whether or not the new proposal is consistent with the town’s comprehensive plan,” Town Solicitor James Marusak explained to Mancini.
Marusak recommended that the revised proposal be sent back to the planning board “so the town council knows exactly what it’s looking at.”
“And then come back again to continue this hearing… and then come back and have a fair hearing,” he added.
The council voted unanimously to table the public hearing until June 4 in order for the planning board, council, and public to have a better understanding of Green Development’s revised proposal. The hearing was ended before the public had a chance to speak.