Planners vote down large Portsmouth solar facility

Abutters objected to size of Nimali Power’s proposal and said it didn’t conform to solar ordinance

By Jim McGaw
Posted 11/17/21

A major large-scale solar array proposed for the corner of Union Street and West Main Road was stopped dead in its tracks by the Planning Board last week.

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Planners vote down large Portsmouth solar facility

Abutters objected to size of Nimali Power’s proposal and said it didn’t conform to solar ordinance

Posted

A major large-scale solar array proposed for the corner of Union Street and West Main Road was stopped dead in its tracks by the Planning Board last week.

“It’s unanimous — petition’s denied,” Chairman Guy Bissonnette declared of Nimali Power RI’s master plan application that was defeated in a 6-0 vote at Town Hall on Wednesday, Nov. 10.

After a few seconds of silence — it took abutters a brief moment to process what they had just heard — the Council Chambers erupted in applause just after 11 p.m. The length of the hearing forced the board to bump two other solar projects it planned on reviewing to a special meeting next month (see story in left column).

Just two nights before last week’s hearing, the Town Council voted unanimously to amend the solar ordinance to prohibit medium- and large-scale solar arrays in residentially zoned areas. The amendment, however, did not impact the three larger solar facilities that are currently under town review because they’re grandfathered in. In any event, Nimali Power’s proposed facility was on commercially zoned property.

Nimali was seeking approval of its master plan application for the development of a large-scale solar project at 2340 West Main Road, north of Union Street. A master plan is a broad overview of a proposal, and the first step before approval is sought of a preliminary plan and then a final plan.

Abutter after abutter last week testified the project was too big, too unsightly, and too close to an important drinking water supply — the Lawton Valley Reservoir. The development would sacrifice numerous trees making up a mature old-growth forest and would adversely impact local wildlife, they added.

Opponents voiced a common theme about the project: “It does not meet the intent or purpose of the current ordinance,” said abutter Robert Hehl. “I don’t see how this application can go any further. Its whole intent and purpose is to maximize the impact of the entire site.”

According to the solar ordinance, commercial solar arrays must be designed to minimize potentially adverse impacts to nearby properties, individuals, or “scenic, natural, cultural resources.”

“If this plan is not able to stand on its merits at the master plan level, then by definition it cannot move on,” said another abutter, Heather Olson, who made reference to the U.S. Navy’s solar array just south of Melville School on West Main Road. There are no buffers to hide that project, which did not require town review, from passing cars or surrounding neighbors.

“If you think the Navy is bad, this is going to be worse,” Olson said. “This is going to be a shiny beacon on top of our hill for everyone to see in all directions, and it cannot be screened. It’s going to be 30 feet in the air.”

According to abutters, the rear of the project could not be completely screened from West Main Road due to the sloping topography of the land. 

Another abutter, Christian Sullivan, said the entire presentation by Nimali was “insulting,” and that the project would have a devastating impact on local habitat. “It’s a massive wildlife property,” Sullivan said.

Richard Munch said he’s not against commercial solar, but Union Street is the wrong place for it.

“Basically they’ve picked a site that’s not appropriate for this industrial-sized solar complex,” he said. “I’m a former science teacher and it blows my mind we’re putting something (of this size) near a reservoir. We shouldn’t be paying the price for that. As a town, we need to be better than that.”

Little help from their friends

Direct abutters to the project weren’t the only ones to speak out against Nimali’s petition last week. Several abutters of other solar arrays being proposed along West Main Road further north also testified.

Louis Letendre, of Sweet Farm Road, said Nimali’s project would force the cutting of mature trees and hurt the aquifer. “I think it’s transformational for the town. I think it’s going to change a very special street,” he said.

Lark Roderigues, of West Passage Drive, compared the town’s handling of proposed solar facilities to an adult giving a child too many pieces of candy. “Somebody has to be an adult and say ‘No — this is not healthy in our town,’” she said.

Bruce Fay, of Sweet Farm Road, told the board the current zoning ordinance is too ambiguous and there’s nothing to be gained from ground-mounted solar arrays. “These types of projects don’t help us one bit,” he said.

Robyn Younkin, of West Passage Drive, said Union Street is one of the most beautiful areas on the island. “It breaks my heart to hear them basically begging you to preserve their neighborhood,” she told the board.

Board member is abutter

The board even heard opposing testimony from one of its own members. Luke Harding recused himself from reviewing the project, as he’s an abutter who lives on Union Street, and briefly took the podium to oppose the developers’ plans.

“I don’t think they’ve met any of the requirements … and I just want them (the abutters) to know I’m behind them,” Harding said to loud applause.

To that, Roderigues asked the other board members to imagine living in Harding’s home. “Vote accordingly,” she said. “Would you want to stare up at a mountain of glaring glass?”

Attorney questions rules

At the start of last week’s hearing, attorney Jay Lynch, representing Nimali Power, asked the board for immediate approval of its master plan, based on numerous continuances approved by the board. Rules dictate that the board must decide on the master plan within 90 days of the original application, and more than 100 days have since passed, he said.

“We’re asking the administrative officer to issue approval based on the board’s failure to render a decision within 90 days,” he said.

Bissonette replied that he believed at least two of the continuances had been requested by the applicant, so the rule “goes by the board.” No further action was taken on Lynch’s request.

An engineer for the developer, Lyn Small of Northeast Engineers and Consultants, testified the project already had a stormwater drainage permit from the R.I. Department of Environmental Management, and that the Newport Water was prepared to submit a letter of approval for the preliminary stage of approval.

Kevin Alverson, a landscape architect hired by the applicant, downplayed the removal of trees, saying the plans called for maintaining as many as possible on the eastern property line. 

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