November 29, 20190

Renewable energy resources and projects are a very hot topic in Rhode Island. Between solar farms and offshore wind farms, stakeholders face a daunting review process. A public utility law project is one that requires approvals and regulatory compliance at both the state and municipal level, and sometimes federal too.

When an activity is designated by the state legislature for regulation, a project developer must follow specific rules. The set of applicable rules is determined by a number of factors. For example, there are many state agencies in Rhode Island and Massachusetts that have specific scopes of review and approval. Location, type, and size are a few parameters that dictate jurisdiction for public utility law projects.


If a project is proposed for an area where it is likely to impact a freshwater wetland, a wetland approval and permit is necessary. If a project is located within 200 feet of a coastal feature in Rhode Island, a coastal zone approval is required. Even where projects are not physically adjacent to waters of the state, the applicant may still have to obtain other approvals. In my experience, public utility law projects need several experts and an attorney to be successful.

The regulatory aspect of any development project at the municipal level is based on the local ordinances. Each municipality is different, with a different set of rules. Some cities have adopted outright moratoriums on certain types of public utility law projects. As a result, the first place that developers stop is town hall. Sometimes, a quick and direct question and answer session with town staff will provide efficient insight on local requirements.

A public utility law project must also proceed through the state’s public utilities commission and siting board review and approval process, as well. The commissions operate through their own set of regulations. Experts and attorneys appear at various hearings to explain the need for the project and fairness to the ratepayers. Ultimately, the burden of proof is on the applicant to explain these elements.


Generally speaking, the planning and zoning processes at the town level necessitates that a project applicant file certain relevant documents. These can include site plans, stormwater planning documents, variance requests, special use permit requests, and materials to support these requests. Then, the applicant must appear before these boards at public meetings to provide evidence, testimony, and answer questions.

Objections to these types of projects can come from many sides. Environmental groups often provide input on whether the project adequately protects natural resources. Adjacent land owners often have concerns about property values. Public utility law project applicants must be prepared to properly respond to the objections so that their project is not derailed. In an ideal situation, the project is located in an appropriate area and the environmental impacts are avoided.

Desautel Browning Law is very familiar with these matters. We provide review, representation, and advice to our clients on how to successfully permit their projects. Call us today to discuss your needs: 401.477.0023.

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