NORTH SMITHFIELD – In the woods off Old Smithfield Road, a quiet stretch of land has stirred up a loud debate over the future of this neighborhood.
Driving into Ruth Pacheco’s farm at 810 Old Smithfield Road, visitors might think they’ve entered a different era. Historic farm structures give way to an expansive herb garden with bright blooms and tantalizing scents. Honeybees buzz from one flower to the next, scooping up nectar before flying off to replenish their hives in another portion of the property.
Pacheco, 89, was raised on the farm, and still lives in a house beside the herb garden. Sitting in her kitchen, she can recall watching her father and brothers carry stones from the field to weigh down the original farmhouse during the Hurricane of 1938. The house survived, and her daughter, Linda Frye, lives there now, two of seven generations to have called the farm home.
The property has changed little, but the world around it has, and signs of that change are visible all up and down Old Smithfield Road. Once the site of an old trolley line, the street now sports “No turbine” signs outside many of its homes. The signs are a visible reminder of the deep rift between the Pacheco family and neighbors over a plan to preserve the family farm by installing a wind turbine on the 53-acre property.
According to Pacheco family history, the first family members to live there were Aldriches who married into the Allen family to combine the family farms. At the time, Old Smithfield Road was the main route connecting Sayles Hill Road to points further north, and the family lived off the land, harvesting lumber and growing crops.
Over the years, they’ve found different ways of bringing income into the farm, raising cows and horses and opening a boarding kennel for dogs. In 1985, Pacheco started Hi-on-a-Hill herb farm, where she still runs summer workshops and has a gift shop. The family also participates in reforestation programs run by the Natural Resources Conservation Service that offer incentives for forest management and hosts Blackstone Valley Apiaries, a team consisting of brothers-in-law Normand Peloquin and John Moore, who keep about a dozen hives on the property.
“It is a farm. As I said, there’s 100,000 workers who are very busy producing honey,” said Pacheco.
In 2015, she attended a workshop for farmers interested in green energy and met Mark DePasquale, founder of wind and solar energy company Green Development. The company developed a plan to install a 462.5-foot-tall wind turbine on the property with a lease agreement promising lease payments to the family over 25 years. The payments, said Pacheco, will allow her and her daughters to continue to maintain the farm, which they eventually hope to pass on to her grandchildren.
“They’re on security, I’m on Social Security, so it’s going to enable us to stay,” she said.
The turbine’s first round before town boards ended abruptly in 2016 when neighbors learned about the project and expressed their opposition before the Town Council, which passed a moratorium on wind turbines and later banned them completely. Though the council actions and an ensuing lawsuit by neighbors delayed the project for more than two years, the application, filed before the ban went into effect, remained active, and the company returned for another hearing before the Zoning Board of Review three months ago.
At the same time Green Development was preparing for another public debate, Nicole Valliere, owner of a neighboring property at 796 Old Smithfield Road, was preparing to move her family to a new home. Several years ago, she and her parents, Albert and Paula Valliere, decided to move in together after her father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and began shopping around for their forever home. They moved between a couple different houses before finding the property on Old Smithfield Road, immediately next door to the Pacheco farm.
“It was quiet and serene and beautifully built,” said Valliere.
The property, which the family purchased for $925,000, includes 16 acres of land and an expansive outdoor space, a setup Valliere said was perfect for her two children. The family, she said, was unaware a turbine was under consideration on the road until after they’d closed on the property in March, when Ruth Pacheco visited to welcome them to their new home. It was Pacheco who told them a turbine may be going up on the neighboring property, less than 1,000 feet from their home.
“With my father being sick and everything, this house is perfect, and I wouldn’t think you would have to look at if there’s a wind turbine going up next to you,” said Valliere.
Since then, she’s done extensive research on wind turbines around the state, contacting neighbors of the company’s other wind turbines in Portsmouth, Johnston and Coventry. Residents in those communities complain of flickering shadows and a constant, vibrating noise impacting their health and keeping them up at night. She visited homes on the Johnston-Cranston line, where residents say they suffer from sleep deprivation as a result of seven turbines, all taller than the one planned for North Smithfield, constructed last year.
“I was appalled. I couldn’t believe how loud it is. It’s like a jet engine running all the time,” she said.
Valliere, along with her neighbors, are fighting hard against the wind turbine, with signs opposing the proposal once again cropping up all over town. The debate has played out at public hearings in the middle school cafeteria, where Green Development has denied allegations their other turbines violate local noise ordinances and pointed out the shadows caused by the spinning blades will only affect homes for a small number of days during the year. Pacheco added that the neighborhood, though set back from the main road, is far from isolated from the noise of surrounding development. From her farm, the sound of 18-wheelers passing on Route 146 and gunshots from a nearby shooting range are constant reminders of the growth of the surrounding area, which also borders Dowling Village and Route 99.
“My neighbors say, what’s in it for us? And I say, well, have you been here all my life taking care of this property? They don’t understand,” she said.
The issue has split neighbors along property lines, with residents who grew up together and once exchanged produce from family farms now eyeing each other across opposite sides of the middle school cafeteria. For the Pachecos, the turbine is about maintaining a family property that has existed for seven generations and, with the extra income, could remain in the family for generations to come.
“There’s something in this land that gets into your blood,” explained Frye.
“It’s called roots,” added Pacheco.
Valliere, too, is trying to preserve a way of life for her family, and worries about the impact the turbine will have on her father’s health. Her father, she said, suffers from seizures triggered by stress, and she worries her family will have to choose between their health and the home they had expected to remain in for years to come. Many of her neighbors have long histories on their properties, and her worst fear, she said, is that the effects of the turbine will be as bad as she’s heard.
“That the people that have owned property on this road, or their families have owned property on this road, or their kids are going to own property on this road, are going to suffer, and there’s nothing anybody can do about it. We’re all helpless,” she said.
The final decision on the turbine will be left to the town Zoning Board, which is expected to issue a decision in July. After several months of discussion, both families said they’re not sure what they’ll do if the board votes in favor of the other side. Neither wants to sell their property, but for the losing side in this debate, the stable way of life they’ve embraced in the woods of Old Smithfield Road could be coming to an end.