Letter: Solar canopy project marks latest threat to North Smithfield water

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Residents of North Smithfield:   

I spoke before the North Smithfield School Committee on July 18, 2022, to enter my objections to agenda item 10, approval of the RFP for the Canopy Parking Lot at the Athletic Complex. I also appeared before them on August 29, 2022 to address my same concerns, which may be viewed on the NS School Committee YouTube feed.    

At that meeting, 8/29, it was made clear that solar canopies, per our own Zoning Map and Ordinances are not allowed at the schools, whether they be ground or rooftop mounted. The School Committee understood that any proposed change would necessitate approval by Zoning. The superintendent was tasked to prepare bid specs for enlargement of the parking lot only, as people were well aware that it would not pass zoning. In an article published by The Valley Breeze on 10/20/22, it was reported that the School Committee would pursue alternative means for expanding the lot, other than as part of an agreement with Green Energy. To quote the Superintendent, “As much as I like the thought of solar and the canopy, I do have concerns about the longevity of it.” According to the article, Mr. St.Jean had inquired of another company and was given a quote of $140,000, which had included another 60 parking spaces and the clearing of trees. A potential 35 percent reimbursement from RIDE was also discussed.  

Mrs. Meo concurred that additional parking space was all we need.  

Fast forward to 4/18/23. The agenda noted discussion regarding the contract for parking lot extension at the Joyce Athletic Complex. The minutes note that Mr. St Jean reached out to URI to discuss their canopied lots. This is not an apple to apples, comparison as many would have you believe. URI moved their canopied lots, so that water near their Fine Arts Complex would not be impacted.  

And here we are again. Like the movie Ground Hog Day or if you prefer the game, Wack a Mole, we are now searching for three separate bids, the canopy, re-grading and the provision for 60 more spaces.  

Our most precious commodity, water, is under attack in North Smithfield. MST has proposed a new facility, which could negatively impact our water in the Slatersville area and many in that area are highly engaged to fight MST’s appeal to DEM. Another individual in this town, that owns the dams in the reservoir, has diverted a waterway in Slatersville. It is not clear whether or not the necessary permits were obtained through DEM. In addition, a historic water wheel long on display, has been removed from the property.

Lorraine Joubert, a professor in the URI department of Resources Science speaking before the NS Water Supply Review Board in May, urged official to be more proactive on water issues and protecting residents going forward.

I fear that certain town employees and elected officials seek to meet the demands of a few, rather than the town as a whole and that is why we are back to square one on this issue. If we reject MST, we should be against solar canopies for the very same issue:  WATER!        

The area surrounding NSHS has long been used to farm by the Goodwin Family and is located near Todds Pond, Primrose Pond and the Audubon Fort Wildlife Refuge.  Please note that Todds Pond is located within the Blackstone River-West River to Peters River Watershed and Primrose Pond is located within the Woonasquatucket River Watershed.  

The United Nations and the EPA have declared August to be National Water Quality Month to bring awareness of the importance of water, to appreciate and protect our water resources, and to make the most of the relatively small amount of fresh water available, worldwide.  

What are you doing to protect it?    

Mary Cimini

North Smithfield

The below comments are from the joint meeting of the Town Council and School Committee on August 29, 2022 

Section 1.  Provision for Official Zoning Map and Ordinance.

“The official zoning map which shall be located in the office of the Town Clerk, shall be the final authority as to the current zoning status of land and water areas, building and other structures of the Town.”

Section 5.  District Use Regulations

The Town of North Smithfield is divided into 11 Zoning Districts: 4 Residential, 3 Business, 2 Mixed Use, 1 Manufacturing and 1 Open Space.  In addition, there are three Overlay Districts:  Groundwater Aquifer, Historic and Solar.  It is noted that:  Overlay District Use Regulations shall take precedence over the regulations of the underlying zoning district.

Each of the Overlay Zoning Districts established by the provisions of this ordinance was created with a specific intent as follows:

Groundwater Aquifer Protection Overlay District (GAP)

This overlay district, shown on the North Smithfield Groundwater Aquifer Protection Overlay District (2012) on file in the office of the town clerk, and includes all land in the town identified as a groundwater reservoir, groundwater recharge area, and town owned non-transient, non-community wellhead protection area (which includes all schools) is established to fulfil the purpose of Section 9, Groundwater Protection Overlay District.  

Open Space (OS)

This district includes properties owned by the Town, State or Federal government presently used for public recreation or conservation purposes.  It also includes quasi-public or privately-owned land where development rights or conservation easements have been conveyed, or for which there is a reasonable expectation of long- term use for open space, conservation or recreation, such as the Audubon Society or North Smithfield Land Trust lands.  Certain limited residential, recreational, agricultural and educational uses are permitted.

Section 5.3 Interpretation of Use Table and Symbols

The status of uses which appear in the table of the district use regulations vary from district to district as indicated by the symbol appearing under the appropriate column heading.  The interpretation of symbols will be as follows:  

Y use is permitted by right

S use may be permitted as a Special use under the provisions of Section 19.22 of this ordinance.

Y* use shall be permitted under provisions of this Ordinance for a limited time as customarily appropriate to the use, not to exceed one year.

N use is not permitted.  

See Attached Use Table

You will see that Roof Mounted and Ground Mounted Systems are not allowed in Open Space areas.

Section 5.3 continues

Where any proposed use is not listed in this section, or in Section 21, Definitions, it shall be the duty of the Zoning Enforcement Officer too determine if the use is substantially similar to any existing use.  If the officer determines that the proposed use is not substantially similar to any existing use, it shall be prohibited in all zones.  Any decision of the Zoning Officer pro or con is appealable to the Zoning Board.

Uses listed in the following table may also be governed by the Groundwater Aquifer and Historic overlay district or by the provisions of Section 8. Flood Hazard Areas.  Any uses of materials having a health hazard rating of 2,3 or 4 or a flammability rating of 1,2,3 or 4 as defined by the NFPA 325 M shall require a special use permit.  

If we are to consider the allowance of Green Development to install a roof mounted solar system, I want to be assured that the Town Council will have this developer /contractor apply for and be permitted for this project as all other contractors must do.   

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5 COMMENTS

  1. Gail, I applaud your efforts. You are 100% correct about the zoning and the potential water issues. The real issue is you have a small group of politicians and taxpayers who feel they run the town and can make any decisions regardless of the laws and costs. Let’s look at the current situation, we currently have ample parking at the middle school for a handful of events and all we need is a stairway/pathway and lighting but certain people feel they need to park closer and waste taxpayers money for a few events. So we need to waste money on parking for a few events when the town roads are in deplorable shape. Second we then hide behind safety as people park on the street. But nothing is being done to stop people from parking illegally on Providence Pike. This could easily be stopped by having the police issue tickets or tow vehicles and actually enforce the law. Again we have another group that chooses which laws they wish to enforce.

    I also feel Mr. St. Jean is more concerned for his job instead of doing what is right for the school property, taxpayers, and education. Mr. St. Jean needs to stand up and do the right thing and focus more on education instead of wasting his time on parking. Mrs. Meo just goes with the flow and has zero financial discipline and thinks the town should spend unlimited funds on education regardless of the impact on taxpayers or improving education. Currently RI is considered a high spending low performer and ranks dead last in New England in educational quality as published recently on Golocalprov.

    Keep up the good fight.

  2. PFAS chemicals is a fast emergent issue. We cannot duck our heads in the sand any longer! I’m hoping that past passionate people in the past would come to one of the Water Supply Protection Review Committee meetings. We need to protect our resources, not just water, but our air quality. This committee has met weekly since February dedicated to enhancing our ordinances regarding water, specificaly 6.19. New people are moving into North Smithfield, not knowing they may be over a groundwater supply or protected reservoir, could also potentially pollute it by not knowing the laws. 6.19 is for businesses, but we need to educate our citizens. Mary, that is amazing research and work. Would love to have you support the committee to be perpetual and not just for the ordinance. August 7, the committee will present it’s findings to the council for first reading. Ms Lorraine Joubert will be attending if the council has any questions. Thank you for listening. Be aware of your surroundings. PLEASE do not throw anything down any water drain or sewer pipe. This is a law in NS. You will be fined.
    Gail Berlinghof

    • I would also like to comment on the dams. According to RI DEM, “Nothing in these rules and regulations shall be deemed to prohibit a dam owner or person maintaining or having control of a dam, from seeking assistance from a municipality or prohibit a municipality from assisting a dam owner in complying with these rules and regulations.” I have to commend the owners of the 5 dams of the constant cost for the maintenance of these 100+ year old dams and their spillways.

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