2018-04-12 / Front Page

Bridge authority nixes solar project

Cites lack of support by town council as reason for scrapping it
BY TIM RIEL

Environmentalists are taking a victory lap after plans for a solar farm at Taylor Point were sent to the chopping block.

The Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority announced last Thursday it will not move forward with the renewable energy proposal due to the town’s “lack of support for the project.” The councilors objected to the plan because the solar arrays would have required an acre of forest to be cleared at the western foot of the Newport Pell Bridge. The 267-kilowatt farm would have supplied 50 percent of the power for that span and the agency’s headquarters on East Shore Road.

Buddy Croft, executive director of the agency, confirmed the decision Tuesday afternoon.

“It became apparent that the town did not embrace the project,” he said. “We value our relationship very much. There was the prospect for potential litigation, and that’s not the relationship we want.”

According to Croft, the decision to kill the project was made months ago following a closed-door meeting with the councilors and their legal team. Neither side, however, announced the verdict. According to Town Administrator Andy Nota, the town was waiting for official word from the bridge authority before reporting the news.

The timeline for the project dates to February 2015 when the bridge authority secured a $300,000 grant from Commerce Rhode Island. The agency then erected a sign announcing the green partnership at the intersection of Conanicus Avenue and East Shore Road. That’s when town officials began to review the scope of the project.

Maureen Coleman, then chairwoman of the conservation com- mission, sent a letter in June 2016 to Nota urging him to consider the negative impact on the view and wildlife habitat. Clear-cutting the forest also would remove the natural barrier that muffles noise from bridge traffic, she said. At that point, the plan was for a 500-kilowatt farm on 3 acres of land.

Eric Offenberg, chief engineer at the bridge agency, was sensitive to those concerns. He returned to the councilors in November 2016 with a proposal that was cut in half. By that time, however, environmentalists had caught wind of the project.

Quentin Anthony, president of the Conanicut Island Land Trust, and Dennis Webster, founding member of the Taylor Point Restoration Association, led the public outcry.

The councilors then put pressure on the agency to apply to the local zoning board. Previously, however, the Public Utility Commission defined the bridge authority as a state agency, which meant it was exempt from local regulations. Because the solar site was on the agency’s land, it didn’t need municipal support, Offenberg said.

The two sides did look at an alternative site in spring 2017, but after Altus Power determined the Dutra farm at the eastern end of Eldred Avenue was not economically feasible, the bridge authority reverted back to its Taylor Point plan.

The last time the councilors met with the bridge authority was during an executive session in May 2017. The agenda cites “potential litigation” as the reason for meeting behind closed doors. Until last week, both sides had remained mum on the controversial subject.

The bridge authority, which is a quasi-state agency paid for through tolls and a percentage of the gasoline tax, settled with its project partner after breaching its 25-year contract. Altus Power was paid $80,000 in September, Croft said. That brought the total cost for the abandoned proposal to $140,000, which also included feasibility studies and legal fees. The agency also has lost the grant for the project.

“There was a lot that fell by the wayside,” Croft said.

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