Solar plan at Warren golf course gets first town OK

Zoning, and preliminary and final plan review, coming later this month

By Ted Hayes
Posted 1/7/21

Warren Planning Board members have unanimously granted master plan approval to a proposal to build a large solar farm on the site of the Windmill Hill Golf Course, setting up an appearance before the …

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Solar plan at Warren golf course gets first town OK

Zoning, and preliminary and final plan review, coming later this month

Posted

Warren Planning Board members have unanimously granted master plan approval to a proposal to build a large solar farm on the site of the Windmill Hill Golf Course, setting up an appearance before the zoning board and a final planning board vote on the matter later this month.

The board's 8-0 decision Monday, Dec. 28, comes with conditions, including that TurningPoint Energy, the outfit hoping to build the facility, obtains necessary Rhode Island DEM approvals, extends buffering and shielding to block views of the farm from surrounding areas, and completes a tie-in to the electric grid. In addition, board members required that TurningPoint receive a special use permit and any variances it needs from the zoning board before the planning board meets again later this month to consider the plan's preliminary and final review stages.

Under the town’s zoning ordinance, TurningPoint would have to obtain a special use permit as while solar farms are permitted in R40, B, M, CI and FC zones, special use permits are required. The tentative schedule is a zoning board meeting Wednesday, Jan. 20 and the planning board on Monday, Jan. 25.

Planning board members said last week that they are satisfied that the seven-megawatt facility will not be an eyesore and will not cause glare or noise issues on surrounding streets, or detract from the quality of life in the neighborhood. And given that TurningPoint Energy will cease fertilizing the grass at the 41-acre property, the plan is also "a major win for this area," board chairman Fred Massie said.

"We do want to be a good neighbor," added Michelle Carpenter, TurningPoint's project manager.

The plan
TurningPoint Energy does not yet own the golf course property, but first floated the idea of purchasing it in 2019. At the time, representatives said that the town’s limit on solar facilities' size, previously capped at five megawatts of power, would make the project undoable financially — and asked that the town up the capacity on its ordinance. Warren Town Council members agreed to up the allowed size to eight megawatts in late 2019.

Much of TurningPoint's time since then has been spent conducting impact studies and working to complete a tie-in with the electric grid.
On Monday, the project's attorney, engineers and a biologist talked about how the plan would impact the site and the town's electric needs.

According to project attorney Bruce Cox, solar panels and infrastructure would cover approximately 20 of the site's 40.8 acres, with much of the rest of the site set aside for buffers, or containing unbuildable wetlands. When ramped up and fully operational, Mr. Cox said the site would generate enough electricity to power approximately 1,500 homes in the area. He said Warren residents would "have the ability to in essence tie in" to the Windmill Hill feed, saving as much as 10 percent in electric costs over National Grid.

In return, he said, Warren would see approximately $33,000 per year in tangible asset taxes from the site with "no impact on the infrastructure of the town whatsoever."

Panels would reach a maximum height of 12 feet above grade, and buffers would be built around the site to lessen its visual impact.

On Schoolhouse Road, where some areas of the golf course are visible from adjacent homes, additional shielding, including the planting of seven to eight-foot trees, would be added, as would a berm in one area to block line of sight from a nearby home.

There would be access for fire trucks, and a permeable service road would bisect the property from north to south, allowing maintenance crews to reach panels when needed. TurningPoint officials said service trucks would probably not visit the property more than once or twice a year, and noted that the grass mixture they plan to spread is easy to care for and needs minimal cutting.

While a small building used as a cart shack on the north end of the property would remain, the Windmill Hill clubhouse would be demolished.

Several residents called in to the planning board's online meeting to ask questions about the project and how it would impact them. Robert Botelho, who owns properties at 39 and 43 Serpentine Road, lives adjacent to the property's southeast corner and a truck turnaround at the end of the permeable road would be just feet from his property line.

He said he was concerned about the project's impact on his property, first from noise but also due to a Bristol County Water Authority plan to decommission the Kickemuit Reservoir and remove its two dams at Schoolhouse Road and Child Street. That work will undoubtedly change the area's hydrology, he said, and he asked for a "collaboration" involving local agencies and the state to "mitigate" any possible impacts.

But Warren Town Planner Bob Rulli said that is not possible given the state enabling legislation that created the BCWA and governs it.

"The BCWA is completely immune to any local jurisdiction," Mr. Rulli said. "There's no opportunity for us to" work with BCWA.

Tim Behan, an engineer with Commonwealth Engineering Consulting in Providence, said his client's plan will be in keeping with DEM requirements that "runoff (will be) less than or equal to existing conditions."

Mr. Botelho also asked about the placement of three inverter and transformer arrays throughout the property that will process and increase the voltage coming out of the site before it enters the grid. Ms. Carpenter said she believes the noise created by that machinery will be well below the town's noise ordinance threshhold.

And while she said she doesn't know how TurningPoint would be able to collaborate with BCWA on the runoff issue, "we're happy to talk about it. We're happy to work with you if there's something we can do."

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