WINSOR FARM REDUX: The Conclusion?

Johnston Zoning Board flips the switch on solar project

Posted 2/1/24

A shadow has been cast on Green Development’s solar project plans in Johnston.

The opposition was nervous. A rumor had circulated through the ranks of Stop Johnston Solar (SJS) that the …

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WINSOR FARM REDUX: The Conclusion?

Johnston Zoning Board flips the switch on solar project


A shadow has been cast on Green Development’s solar project plans in Johnston.

The opposition was nervous. A rumor had circulated through the ranks of Stop Johnston Solar (SJS) that the four-month zoning hearing would drag on to February. Many decided not to show up for Thursday night’s meeting.

Then, early Thursday, Jan. 25, SJS attorney Matt Landry informed the group’s members that a vote was likely that night.

“There was an awful lot of scrambling that day when we found out about the vote that we were told was probably not going to happen,” said ex-mayoral candidate Karen Cappelli Chadwick. “We all called people, sent out messages, put up Facebook posts, and it worked. We were able to get a good crowd.”

Meeting To Order

The atmosphere was tense in the Johnston Senior Center as the crowd slowly grew. At first, there were plenty of empty seats. But by the time the opening gavel banged, an argument over folding chairs erupted. The room was suddenly full and Johnston resident Paul Francis was ready to lock horns in combat.

Zoning Board Chairman Thomas Lopardo opened the meeting. The board informed the public they had four voting members, enough for a quorum (one member was out sick, and another present Thursday night had missed a meeting).

Francis leapt to his feet, as he has monthly, commanding the room's attention. The board stopped fighting Francis last year. They let him talk.

“If it goes in their favor, we’re going to be upset you don’t have a full panel voting,” Francis warned the board.

“I understand exactly,” Lopardo said. “There’s no shenanigans being played. Just give us five minutes please.”

The tension was audible. Voices shaking. Hands wringing.

People were rankled that the solar project was listed at the end of the agenda. They thought they would have to sit through three new special use permit applications before they had closure on an increasingly emotional issue — the clearing of nearly 160 acres of woodland to install nearly 50,000 solar panels off Winsor Avenue on the site of a historic farmstead.

Some residents feared the fix was in. That peculiar Johnston fatalism was apparent as Chadwick talked to neighbors leading up to Thursday’s climax.

“That afternoon Matt Landry found out they were indeed going to vote,” she said. “I have been called ‘Pollyanna’ and a ‘cockeyed optimist.’ I felt that we had a chance. If I had a nickel for every ‘I told you so’ since my brief stint in politics, I could have purchased the Steere's property and kept it just the way it is.”

‘Cockeyed Optimist’ affirmed

“On my way to the meeting, the clouds parted and a big full moon showed,” Chadwick said. “It gave me hope. When I got to the Senior Center I saw a group of folks who looked like the hammer was about to fall.”

The Zoning Board’s legal counsel, attorney Joseph Ballirano, who also serves as chairman of the Johnston Democratic Town Committee, announced a break from the posted agenda.

The audience grumbled. Francis prepared to launch.

“When Mr. Ballirano stated that there was a change in the program I thought folks would start yelling,” Chadwick recalled. “Mr. Pilozzi could not take the microphone fast enough.”

Zoning Board Vice-Chairman Anthony Pilozzi held the microphone and tried to talk over the crowd. They barely let him.

“And when he started to speak I bit my hand so I wouldn't cry,” Chadwick said. “But cry I did.”

A Beautiful Motion

Pilozzi silenced the crowd with a few keywords.

“I appreciate that the lawyers want to do fancy memos and closing arguments,” he said into the microphone. “But to be frank, I’ve reviewed the transcripts, taken notes, (I’m) prepared to make a motion here this evening. We have heard 10 hours of testimony from experts and neighbors and some fancy … closing argument is not going to change that.”

“I’m going to make a motion to deny the special use permit for the application under administrative reasons and my findings of fact …”

Muted celebrations sparked in the crowd. Hands came together but were stopped short of a clap not to interfere with Pilozzi’s decree.

“Although the matter was placed on our agenda by the planner, for our consideration, our zoning ordinance leaves the task of determining whether the application being considered, after a previous application previously denied, less than two years ago was substantially and materially changed so that it could be heard one year after the previous denial instead of two.”

Pilozzi paused and took a deep breath. Faces in the crowd scanned the room looking for Town Planner Thomas Deller. Deller didn’t attend the last meeting when residents delivered testimony, although he was the town official who gave Green Development’s application the green light.

Once again, Deller was not in attendance. When Pilozzi mentioned Deller, he placed a cutting accent on the last syllable of “town planner.”

One of Green Development’s expert witnesses testified that the new proposal had a “20 percent reduction in power creation, thus it was substantially different,” Pilozzi told the crowd.

“But on cross-examination, the testimony developed that lot coverage had only less than a 6% reduction and using 48.2% of the land, to 42.6% of the land. The testimony then developed that in the ’22 application, the applicant voluntarily agreed to remove some panels during the hearing, thus the new application really only had a 1% reduction in land use and electricity generation.”

“I find that this application should be denied on administrative finality because it was not substantially different,” he said. “The testimony I rely on was from the applicant’s expert witness thus it was even more persuasive to me.”

Pilozzi took a moment to offer an aside regarding his philosophy on “land use.”

“I think land use is just about that — how much land you’re using, versus what you’re producing,” he explained.

Argument of Structure

A familiar conundrum resurfaced from earlier hearings. Are solar panels structures?

“On the merits of the application, I find that the solar proposal and construction of solar panels do constitute structures,” Pilozzi told the still-quiet crowd. “That was very difficult, that one … Under the zoning ordinance, and thus must only cover 15 percent of the lot. And a proposal calling (for) 43% exceeds the permitted use.”

Pilozzi recalled a similar Rhode Island case, described during testimony that went to “Superior Court and the Supreme Court and the courts upheld that the construction of a solar array is a structure and thus limited to applicable lot coverage permission; which in our zoning ordinance is 15%. I agree with the opponent’s argument that a structure is the use of materials above and below the ground. I find that the anchoring of these solar panels into the ground with cement pads makes them a structure.”

“The testimony from the applicant was that they intend to use these panels for 25 years. Thus I find that they will be attached to the ground significantly, and this is a structure. I also heard testimony from … the opponent’s land use expert, who also testified that solar panels are structures … This seems common sense to me.”

Pilozzi also addressed the town’s outdated Comprehensive Plan (CP).

He cited testimony that confirmed the town’s current CP and zoning ordinance “does not mention solar at all.”

“How can solar be consistent with the plan, if it doesn’t anticipate it or deal with it?” Pilozzi asked. “I can not reconcile that in my mind.”

Once again, he agreed with testimony from opposition witnesses: “It’s actually impossible to find solar consistent with the comp plan because it’s not there … Ultimately the comp town could not anticipate solar if it never mentioned it.”

The motion continued (portions have been trimmed for this report). Pilozzi’s prepared remarks next tackled neighboring property values: “I find there will be a reduction in property values (for) neighboring parcels.”

“Those are my findings of fact,” Pilozzi concluded. “And those are my reasons to deny the … application.”

Before the vote, Pilozzi looked out into the audience to address a comment made at the last meeting.

“One thing I would like to mention — the gentleman from Rollingwood Drive who insulted this board, now chew on the decision that you just got,” Pilozzi said, turning a feisty stink-eye toward the crowd. “We’re not in anybody’s pocket. I think it was very rude of you to make that remark about this board. We don’t get paid.”

“Do we have a second?” the chairman interrupted.

A second heard was heard and the vote commenced.

One at a time, each member said “denied.” The vote was unanimous. All four members — Lopardo, Pilozzi, Charles Ainabe and alternate Dennis Cardillo — voted to deny the special use permit.

Pent up applause released, filling the room. The crowd stood and then trickled out of the senior center.

Tears and Applause

“I was not alone,” Chadwick said. “For the other teary eyes, I think it was relief. For me, my mom always said, ‘Give someone the benefit of the doubt until they give a reason otherwise.’ In the final hour, the Zoning Board made the right decision for all the right reasons.”

Grateful residents took turns shaking the hands of zoning board members. Chadwick approached Pilozzi, and according to her account, the vice-chairman told her, “You were pretty rough on us.”

Chadwick replied, “We had to be.”

Johnston Mayor Joseph M. Polisena Jr. has been a supporter of Green Development’s proposal, following the receipt of numerous campaign contributions from employees of the Cranston-based company. Following the board’s first denial of the application, in 2022, Polisena said he supported the board’s decision.

Then the applicant returned. Polisena promoted Deller, who had been working for years as Johnston’s part-time Town Planner, to a newly created position heading the Development & Public Services Department, with a $95,000 annual salary. Deller reviewed Green Development’s application and placed it on the zoning board’s agenda, which led to the past four months of continued public hearings.

“As I said from the beginning of this a few years ago, even after the first one was denied, I have full faith in the zoning board to render the correct legal decision,” Polisena said about Thursday’s vote.

Legal counsel for Green Development, Providence attorney John O. Mancini did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Landry said he has to examine the case and determine the opposition’s next step, should the zoning board decision face a challenge in court (the 2022 case is still tied up in litigation).

Next Step Unclear

“Most of the residents are elated, but wondering what happens next,” Chadwick said. “Hopefully Councilman (Robert) Civetti can bring forward another ordinance banning solar in residential areas. If we pack the house, it just might work.”

Since the 2022 rejection, Civetti introduced a town-wide ordinance to halt solar development until the Comprehensive Plan can be updated to plan for it. His ordinance died for lack of a second (no other council members offered support).

“It was gratifying to see the zoning board agree with the legal points for opposing the solar project and how it did not change significantly from the proposal two years ago,” said Johnston resident Wayne Forrest. “It was even more welcome to see the board member realize the damage taking down all those trees and clearing the land would have had on homes in the area with severe flooding from water runoff. So many homeowners would have had their lives interrupted for a long time.”

Expert witnesses and neighbors agree — if the town’s planning guide and zoning laws go unchanged, another application’s only a matter of time.


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