NORTH SMITHFIELD – For the second year in a row, fierce debates over individual projects continued to shape the conversation around the future of development and town identity in North Smithfield. In particular, renewable energy projects repeatedly made headlines across town as solar farms of all sizes and a controversial wind turbine that had been on the backburner for several years made the rounds before town boards.
As the year went on, residents and town officials continued to raise concerns about overdevelopment and protecting the town’s resources. In October, town officials passed a moratorium against new solar projects, following in the footsteps of other Rhode Island communities who’ve dealt with similar concerns. As officials debated various parts of a new solar zoning ordinance, other projects continued to move forward in the approval process, including a 38-megawatt project off Iron Mine Hill Road.
Other developments also drew the attention of residents this year, including housing projects off Douglas Pike and Victory Highway and a 462-foot-tall wind turbine proposed for Old Smithfield Road. Over the line in Burrillville, residents celebrated a victory when the state Energy Facility Siting Board rejected a plan to build a power plant after nearly five years of debate.
While the conversations around development and debates over tax rates and town building projects sparked division, the town also came together on several occasions. Residents said goodbye to Halliwell Memorial School, remembered those they’ve lost with the dedication of a new monument at Veterans Memorial Stadium and hosted new town events throughout the summer. Town officials were also united in their efforts to lobby the state for more attention on Route 146.
Here are the highlights for a town that continued to struggle with its identity in the face of changing development and new opportunities for growth:
Solar making strides
For the second year in a row, solar development was one of the town’s most divisive topics as residents grappled with the difficulty of balancing tax income and the environmental benefits of renewable energy with a strong desire to maintain the town’s undeveloped land. Last year, Green Development, the North Kingstown-based company also behind the town’s wind turbine proposal, got zoning approval from the Town Council to build a massive, 38-megawatt solar farm on 400 acres off Iron Mine Hill Road. The project drew swift opposition from residents, many of them opposed to the 180 acres of tree clearing required to complete the project.
That opposition carried over to other projects as the town saw a large influx of solar proposals. This year, town boards considered applications for solar farms on Greenville Road, another on Iron Mine Hill Road, Providence Pike, the Gold property on Douglas Pike and the Pacheco property on Old Smithfield Road. In October, the Town Council passed an eight-week moratorium on new solar applications at the request of the Planning Board to give the town time to make changes to its solar zoning policy. In December, that new policy was passed, adding new requirements strengthening the town’s decommissioning assurance and allowing the town to request that developers replace cleared trees.
As for the Green Development farm, the company signed off on a $5.4 million tax treaty with the town in October and still needs several approvals before it can begin construction. In January, the company is scheduled to go back before the Planning Board for their preliminary review.
Wind turbine gets a resounding ‘no’
A three-year-old application by Green Development to construct a wind turbine on property at 810 Old Smithfield Road came back into the spotlight this year only to be soundly defeated when the Zoning Board voted 5-0 to block the project.
The project had already drawn stark battle lines between neighbors and the owner of the rural parcel when it returned before the board in March. Over four months of hearings, the Zoning Board heard concerns about shadow flicker, noise violations, health impact and the visual reality of putting a 462-foot-tall turbine on land roughly behind Dowling Village. They also heard from neighbors of the company’s other wind turbines in Johnston and Coventry who cautioned officials not to allow the developments in their town.
Ruth Pacheco, the 89-year-old owner of the property, defended the project as a way to maintain income at her family’s historic farm. The board ultimately sided with neighbors, declaring in July neighbors should not be expected to deal with the effects of living near a turbine. The company quickly appealed the decision in Superior Court, but indicated this month they’re not “aggressively pushing” the appeal while the town considers an alternate plan to build a solar farm on the property.
Burrillville sends power plant packing
The story of a small, rural town triumphing over a global energy company made headlines statewide when the Energy Facility Siting Board rejected an application to build an oil and gas-burning power plant in Burrillville in June.
The project, which had the support of state officials when it was first proposed by Invenergy in 2015, drew legal challenges from both the town of Burrillville and the Conservation Law Foundation. Over four years of hearings, residents spoke extensively about the project’s impact on the environment and made it clear it wasn’t welcome in their town. Due to state law, a decision on the project was left entirely in the hands of a state board, which ultimately decided the energy promised by the company wasn’t needed in the region.
In the wake of the decision, proponents have continued to push for changes to the state Energy Facility Siting Act that would give more say to local towns about projects in their communities.
Delays and controversy at Kendall Dean
A renovation of the former Kendall Dean School building into a new town hall hit a rough patch earlier this year when the town hired a lawyer to consult on potential legal action against the contractor. Though not all the issues with the project have been disclosed, one of the main concerns was a delayed timeline for a project that was supposed to be finished by Oct. 31. Town Council President Paul Vadenais told The Breeze earlier this month the contractor was still finishing up some major pieces of the project and expected to be done after the first of the year.
The delays were the latest issue for a project that has divided residents since it was approved by voters in 2014. Critics, most notably resident Michael Clifford, have accused town officials of failing to stick to the original bond mandate of consolidating town services by not placing School Department offices in the building. Town officials have defended the decision, claiming the original bond was flawed and didn’t include enough money to complete the project as planned. The two sides have continued to trade attacks on the issue as Kendall Dean nears completion, with a second part of the project, the renovation of the former Bushee School, on hold after those bids came in over budget.
With the current town hall expected to be empty after employees move to Kendall Dean, town officials say they will hold a public forum in the new year on what to do with that property as well as the vacant Halliwell School.
Councilors dig in on issues
After a previous year that many noted for its unusual level of collaboration among town boards, it was back to business as usual in North Smithfield, where councilors and other elected officials often found themselves divided on contentious issues. In a pattern that solidified as the year went on, Councilor Douglas Osier Jr., newly elected to the council last November, and longtime Councilor Paul Zwolenski found themselves at odds with Council President Paul Vadenais and Councilor Teresa Bartomioli on topics such as solar, rules of order, social media policy and tax rates. On several occasions, Vadenais and Bartomioli joined Town Administrator Gary Ezovski in advocating for policies that support the town’s business development, while Zwolenski and Osier tended to raise issues related to project oversight and more involvement by town residents. Often, Councilor Claire O’Hara, a retired teacher now serving her second term, cast the deciding vote after hours of debate on an issue.
At the same time, many residents continued their calls for greater transparency in town affairs. Last year, contentious votes on the Green Development solar zoning ordinance and the Nike boycott prompted many residents to speak out about a need for accountability in town government. One such group, Engage North Smithfield, gained visibility during last year’s debates and has continued to remain active in town politics and on social media. Residents also continued to keep a close eye on town issues with regard to solar policy, the Kendall Dean renovation, housing developments and a proposed wind turbine.
Students say goodbye to Halliwell
In June, Halliwell Memorial Elementary School graduated its final class as part of a reconfiguration of students in the district. Long overdue repairs and changing standards had landed the school on a projected closure list for at least 10 years, a conclusion that was bittersweet but accepted as necessary by school officials and many families. At North Smithfield Elementary School, a new four-classroom addition completed in August accommodated 4th-graders, while at North Smithfield Middle School, new start times tried to make the transition smoother for 5th-graders. Other buildings also had significant renovations, including a major overhaul of the science labs at North Smithfield High School and NSHS locker room improvements planned for next year.
With Halliwell now vacant, debate has already begun over what to do with the empty town property. After several hearings on the issue, the School Committee decided to keep the name “Halliwell” at the property and name the new wing of NSES after Dr. Harry L. Halliwell, for whom the school was named. In time, some town officials have said, the campus may need to be reopened as a school if new housing developments lead to an increase in students. In the meantime, many residents have suggested using the property as a community or senior center, an initiative that gained traction at the urging of Councilor Claire O’Hara earlier this year.
Investing in public space?
Investment in public recreational space was a hot topic of conversation this year as supporters pushed for improvements to or purchases of various types of public properties. In October, those looking for improvements at the recently named Veterans Memorial Stadium had some success when a concession stand/bathroom facility was included as part of a tax agreement for the Green Development solar farm. Improvements at the stadium and other town properties had previously been the target of a bond proposed by Anthony Guertin, chairman of the town Parks and Recreation Commission, and supported by the School Committee.
Proponents of open space had less success convincing town officials to purchase the 144-acre Gold property off Douglas Pike. Town officials defended the decision, pointing out that a solar developer who eventually purchased the property had plans to donate portions of it to the town in the immediate future and the whole thing down the road. Environmentalists also clashed with town officials on the issue of clear cutting for solar development. The tensions came to a head in December, when all six members of the town’s Conservation Commission resigned in protest following a dispute over reappointment of members by Town Administrator Gary Ezovski.
Housing growth continues
The town continued to see interest from residential housing developers, with proposals off Douglas Pike, Victory Highway and Eddie Dowling Highway all moving forward in the approval process. Rankin Estates, a controversial 126-home development proposed off Douglas Pike, cleared the first stage of its Planning Board application, while Slater Village, a 120-unit senior living complex off Victory Highway, also got the green light to move forward to the next step. In Dowling Village, developer Brian Bucci won narrow support for his plan to build 21 condo units on land originally targeted for commercial space, while at High Rocks, plans to expand were complicated by concerns raised by residents over parking. All four projects are due back before town boards next year.
While the current school enrollment projections show a decline, some town officials and residents raised concerns that if all future housing projects are approved, the town could see a sharp increase in families leading to a need to build a new school.
No repaving for Route 146
Resolutions by both the North Smithfield Town Council and Woonsocket City Council, as well as active lobbying by Town Administrator Gary Ezovski, Rep. Brian Newberry, of District 48, and Sen. Jessica de la Cruz, of District 23, were not successful in convincing the state to put a scheduled repaving of Route 146 between Route 295 and the 146A back on track for 2022. In August, the State Planning Council approved a plan to delay the repaving two more years until 2024, a decision that drew frustration from local officials who say they’ve felt forgotten by the state’s decisions on infrastructure spending.
Last January, that section of Route 146 was the site of a long backup when several large potholes created problems for commuters after heavy rain. Local officials warned the potholed stretch, often cited as one of the worst in the area, could lead to serious injuries before the scheduled repaving.
Higher values, higher taxes
After residential property values rose an average of 20 percent in last year’s statistical revaluation, many homeowners were disappointed to learn their 2019-2020 property taxes would go up. In June, those views came out during a contentious budget process that lasted several weeks. After approving a $45 million budget that included a 2.48 percent increase plus an additional $100,000 for the schools, councilors found themselves on opposite sides of a debate over who should take the brunt of the tax increase. In the numbers originally proposed by Town Administrator Gary Ezovski, residents and commercial taxpayers both saw a small decrease in their rates, from $17.24 to $16.34 per thousand dollars of assessed value for residential taxpayers and from $19.13 to $18.13 for commercial. Councilors Paul Zwolenski and Douglas Osier Jr. both supported freezing commercial rates and giving more of a break to residential taxpayers to even out a larger increase in value.
After several weeks of debate, town officials compromised on a middle option that set residential rates at $15.87 and commercial rates at $18.88. The large increase in the tax levy, according to town officials, was driven in part by a drop in revenue after changes by National Grid, the Rehabilitation Hospital of Rhode Island and Stanley Tree Service.
|Wind Watch relies entirely
on User Funding