Energy LawGrowing Tensions: Solar Development and Forested Land – Are Land Use Restrictions Necessary?

February 20, 20200

Many people agree with the benefits that renewable development bring. For example, less reliance on already-finite fossil fuels, potential long-term financial savings, etc. But, the problems that may come with where to put these development projects are now a hot topic. The balance between renewable energy projects and forests, open space, and farmland has surfaced more recently with regard to solar farms.

The Municipal Role

The state’s individual municipalities have control over solar projects, and on implementing land use restrictions. According to an article by the Providence Journal, residents in some of these cities and towns “complain. . . and, along with the support of groups like Grow Smart Rhode Island, have urged the state to step in and take a direct hand in deciding where solar farms can and cannot be built.”

Many opponents say that land use restrictions preventing clear-cutting forested areas are needed. Some solar farms continue to create forest fragmentation. According to a recent Rhode Island Forest Conservation Advisory Committee/Rhode Island Tree Council report, Rhode Island was 67% forested in 1967. However, this percentage declined as the state continued to develop. The decline was particularly marked in previously continuous swaths of forested land.

Hopkinton, Richmond, and Tiverton

Developers have been experiencing difficulties during application processes for solar farms intending to build by clear-cutting. The Hopkinton Town Council denied an application allowing for the construction of a solar farm in residential zone. This was the first to be considered after the town amended its solar energy ordinance. The amended ordinance limits solar panel coverage of any given property. Hopkinton also grappled with a proposal for a 139-acre solar farm project which required clear-cutting.

The Richmond Town Council denied a proposal to permit larger solar farms on the town’s largely agricultural land. This decision was based on the project’s conflict with the town’s land use restrictions and comprehensive land use plan. Also, a proposal in Tiverton would require demolition of a pre-Revolutionary War home, and is being met with outrage.

As a result, solar developers are dealing with lost revenue and expenses for projects that are delayed in permitting. These delays can include lengthy and expensive court filings along the way, because of the new land use restrictions.

The State Response

Naturally, the state has also weighed in. The state assessed land use restrictions that may keep a balance between solar development and forested lands. On May 8, 2019, a memorandum to the Director of RIDEM, Janet Coit, discussed these strategies. A large number of ideas for land use restrictions revolve around encouraging solar development to occur on already-disturbed lands as opposed to forest. To see these strategies, head to Appendix B of the above report here.

What does all of this mean if you want to develop renewable energy projects? These projects do not exist in a bubble, and the project will likely face public backlash. Also, you may face a difficult road to approval if the project does not account for other uses in the area, and the surrounding landscape. You need someone who knows the various land use restrictions, as well.

If you’re planning a renewable energy project, reach out to us. We can suggest ways that your project balances interests. Call us today at 401.477.0023 to learn about how your application can be less contentious and more likely to succeed.

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