By DANIEL KITTREDGE
Cranston’s recent enactment of a nine-month moratorium on commercial-scale solar projects has survived an initial legal challenge, although litigation remains pending from the companies behind a proposed solar installation off Vaughn Lane in the city’s Fiskeville section.
Superior Court Associate Justice Maureen B. Keough on Tuesday rejected a request from Fiskeville Realty Co. I LLC, Hexagon Energy LLC and Substrate Solar LLC for a temporary restraining order preventing the city from enforcing the moratorium, which was unanimously adopted by the City Council on Jan. 23 and signed by Mayor Allan Fung on Feb. 4. A preliminary injunction hearing has been scheduled for April 23.
“Mayor Fung is pleased with Judge Keough’s decision today in denying the Fiskeville motion for a temporary restraining order barring enforcement of the solar mortorium ordinance,” Daniel Parrillo, Cranston’s director of administration, said in a statement. “We look forward to working with our Planning Department and public partners in reviewing and making recommendations for the best use of solar energy for the residents of Cranston in the future. “
In a complaint filed in February, the applicants behind the Fiskeville project allege that the moratorium was enacted outside the bounds of the law and should not be applied to the their project.
Fiskeville Realty, which owns the property at 99 Vaughn Lane, is a plaintiff in the suit along with Hexagon Energy and Substrate Solar. The plaintiffs are represented by attorneys from Providence firm Kelly, Souza, Rocha & Parmenter PC.
The city of Cranston and Robert Strom, in his capacity as the city’s finance director, are named as defendants. Jeffrey H. Gladstone and Robert K. Taylor, both of Partridge Snow & Hahn LLP, have been retained as the counsel for the city and Strom.
The complaint asserts that prior to Jan. 23, the plaintiffs “diligently prepared [a master plan] application for the proposed solar development which was an allowed use in zoning designation A-80 and M-2. It is worth noting that the proposed solar array installation is solely in an A-80 zone.”
The master plan application was submitted to Cranston’s Planning Department on the Jan. 23, according to the complaint, but was issued a certificate of incompleteness that afternoon because “the site plan did not include a land surveyor stamp.” The complaint states that a digital copy of the site plan containing a land surveyor stamp was sent to the planning office a little more than an hour later, “which effectively cured the sole basis for the issuance of the Certificate of Incompleteness.”
“To date, Plaintiffs have received no communication from Cranston, the Planning Department or [Principal Planner Doug] McLean outlining any other deficiencies in the Application,” the complaint states.
The complaint further alleges that comments made during the City Council’s Jan. 23 meeting suggest the enactment of the moratorium was timed to specifically prevent the Fiskeville project. The complaint asserts that the plaintiffs were unaware of the moratorium until after its passage and suggests the city violated open meetings law in enacting the measure.
The plaintiffs ask the court to void the moratorium and award damages.
The issuance of a certificate of completeness – and what, precisely, constitutes a project as having been deemed “vested” – was a core aspect of the debate over the moratorium. Ultimately, the moratorium makes planning staff’s issuance of a certificate of completeness for a master plan application the point at which a project is considered vested. As a result, any project that did not receive a certificate of completeness prior to the moratorium’s enactment is subject to the city’s freeze on new large-scale projects.
Cranston Planning Director Jason Pezzullo last week said the Fiskeville application “came in very late in the process” as the moratorium was being considered. He said the project’s plan involves a roughly 30-acre footprint and a solar installation that would generate less than 4 megawatts.
Pezzullo also provided documentation sent to the project’s developers by Principal Planner Doug McLean on Jan. 23 and Feb. 15.
In a Jan. 23 notice, McLean informed the developers that the application for the Fiskeville project had been deemed incomplete due to the lack of a land surveyor stamp.
“Staff is continuing to review the application for other items that may or may not result in additional findings relating to its completeness,” McLean wrote. “Staff will send you follow-up correspondence if any additional items are found that relate to the application’s completeness within the state allocated 25-day review period.”
“We made sure we put on the caveat that this review has only begun,” Pezzullo said last week.
On Feb. 15, McLean issued a notice to the developers outlining 12 additional causes for an incompleteness determination. One states: “The application does not address the fact that one of the subject properties listed in this application lies within 2 different municipalities: Cranston and Coventry.”
McLean continued, “To date, the Town of Coventry has not received a copy of the application or any submission materials regarding the proposed activities to occur … The application must be revised to, at minimum, identify that this subject property lies within both the municipality of Cranston and Coventry and would require review through a multi-municipal jurisdictional process.”
As a result of the findings, Pezzullo said, the Fiskeville project will not move forward in the review process at present.
“The applicant can continue to work with staff,” he said.
The moratorium came about following widespread concerns from residents and officials over the proliferation of large solar installations in areas designated as A-80 residential zones, specifically in areas of Western Cranston. The purpose of the pause on new projects is to allow the city to review and update its rules for solar power facilities.
Pezzullo said officials are currently in the “research phase,” with plans to hold public meetings on the issue in the next two to three months. Planning officials will then draft a proposed ordinance amendment to bring before the council, he said.
The timeline calls for the process to be completed in late summer, Pezzullo said, ahead of the moratorium’s expiration in October.