A national company has plans to purchase seven properties in the area of Holliston Sand Company to build a 40-acre solar farm, one of the largest of its kind in the state, according to a pre-application submitted to the Planning Board.
Town code currently limits solar projects to six acres, and the massive 6.22-megawatt project will require additional approvals, as well as a zoning variance.
The proposal, submitted by TPE Rhode Island Solar Holdings2 LLC, also known as Turning Point Energy, would see a commercial solar array built primarily on a 64-acre property on Old Oxford Road currently owned by William Horton King. The heavily forested land sits within a Rural Residential Conservation zoning district near Holliston and Brookside Equestrian Center, which is also currently used for sand mining, according to the 47-page application.
The facility would take around five months to build and once complete, would power 1,200 Rhode Island homes according to documents prepared by the Denver-based company.
“This pilot program is among the first in the country and allows the residents of Rhode Island to purchase electricity at a discount to current National Grid rates without having to put solar on their rooftops,” the application states. “Residents will have the chance to subscribe to the solar facility and receive a 20 percent discount on their bills.”
Turning Point Energy has already developed some 750 megawatts of solar projects across the country, valued at more than $2.1 billion.
Additional properties potentially affected by the North Smithfield proposal include several parcels owned by Cheryl Bator and Keith Stone. Entrance, exit and utility connections would take place through two properties on Pound Hill Road owned by Alfred and Sandra Caron, through a 14-foot gravel access road. The Caron lots each hold one single-family home and the rest is used for “ATV riding, shooting and a minor hay operation,” according to the applicant.
The project could bring in new tax revenue, and would also provide relief to several property owners who have been unable to access their land for more than a decade.
The lots for the proposed solar project surround Old Tifft Road, an unpaved “paper street,” or mapped street that is no longer used, near the Slatersville Reservoir that landowners say was blocked off with boulders in 2003. Bator and Stone were part of a group that brought the issue to the Town Council in 2016, saying they’d been illegally barricaded from accessing their land.
Council members briefly considered legally adopting the paper street at the time, but learned that the issue was the subject of lawsuit in Superior Court. Holliston eventually won control of the dirt street through an adverse possession suit.
And lack of access isn’t the only problem making the properties worth little beyond their proposed use, according to the investors. The area also has groundwater contamination, states the application, and “economic development opportunities on these parcels are extremely limited.”
The only other use that could work, they note, would be another sand and gravel pit.
The combined total tax revenue brought in by the lots where the solar project would be built is $2,300, and TPE estimates that the number would jump to $31,600 once the facility is built, a 2,948 percent increase. Benefits would also include short-term and long-term job creation, with 50 to 75 people put to work during the construction process.
The solar farm would be fenced in and accessed with security gates, and would be one of the largest facilities currently in Rhode Island, according to TPE. The application notes that the company already has legal site control of all of the proposed land parcels as proposed real estate purchases at a significant premium to the current market.
Planning Board members showed general interest in the project during the conceptual review phase at a meeting earlier this month.
“You want to try to give the applicant clear direction,” Town Planner Tom Kravitz said of the process. “They want to see the next step.”
If the proposal passes the next stage of planning, the developers would need to resolve zoning issues. While TPE plans to leave a buffer surrounding the solar farm, one area would not meet the 100-foot setback from property lines required for solar arrays. Additionally, rules set out in the town’s solar ordinance, amended just last year, state that projects cannot exceed 30 percent of a lot, or be larger than six acres. On the King property, the company hopes to disturb 40 acres of a 60-acre lot.
Kravitz said the timeline for the project will depend how quickly TPE completes needed fieldwork, including land surveying.
“The ball’s in the developer’s court now,” Kravitz said.