WOONSOCKET — Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt has hired an environmental lawyer to determine whether it’s feasible to erect solar panel farms at any of the locations where the City Council is instructing her to do so, most recently River’s Edge Recreational Complex, the site of a capped landfill that the state shut down many years ago.
Personally, Baldelli-Hunt said, she doesn’t think River’s Edge is suitable for solar panels, since the complex includes sports fields and a stretch of the Blackstone River Bikeway that seem to be serving well as recreational amenities.
“It certainly wouldn’t rise to the top of my choices for solar arrays,” Baldelli-Hunt said during an impromptu briefing with reporters at City Hall Monday. “I tend to shy away from taking a beneficial use and exchanging it with another beneficial use. At first glance it appears there is a quite a bit of activity at River’s Edge.”
But Baldelli-Hunt stopped short of issuing an absolute blockade against the redevelopment of River’s Edge for green energy, saying she’d look to lawyer Christian F. Capizzo for advice and recommendations.
The former head of the Attorney General’s Environmental Crimes Task Force, Capizzo now specializes in environmental and land use law for the Providence firm Partridge Snow & Hahn. Baldelli-Hunt said he will take a look at the feasibility of all the sites – five to date – where the council has either already directed the administration to develop solar panels or is instructing the administration to seek a bidder to do so.
Council Vice President Jon Brien, however, said the City Charter provides the mayor with no discretion to reject the council’s directives. He said the council will wait to see what Capizzo has to say about River’s Edge and the other sites, then take whatever steps seem prudent.
“Then we as a council will decide whether that’s a good use of River’s Edge or not,” Brien said. “She can’t make that determination without having a response from any potential bidders, it doesn’t make sense.”
Brien said the mayor would be in violation of the City Charter if she refuses to conclude the contracts that have already been approved by the council. He said, “That ship has already sailed as to whether or not this is getting done at the sites we have chosen.”
In June, the council voted 5-0 to instruct the administration to firm up a deal with Green Development LLC of North Kingstown to build solar farms at sites on Aylesworth Avenue, Bourdon Boulevard, Jillson Avenue and Manville Road. The company was one of seven that responded to a request for proposals (RFP) to develop green energy facilities, which the administration also carried out on instructions from the council, months earlier.
Green Development promises to deliver the city $20-25 million in savings on municipal power consumption over 25 years in the form of reduced costs associated with generating the power and income from leasing the sites where it would build the solar panels.
The mayor’s hiring of Capizzo comes in response to a second green energy initiative advanced by the council on Aug. 5. That’s when the panel voted 5-1 to instruct the mayor to issue a second RFP to solicit bids for another solar farm at River’s Edge Recreational Complex.
In addition to hiring Capizzo for advice, Baldelli-Hunt says she is still seeking input from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management on whether River’s Edge is suitable for a solar farm. The city was ordered by DEM to shut down the former municipal dump off Davison Avenue years ago after regulators discovered that toxic materials were being disposed of there unlawfully.
More recently, when DEM awarded the city a grant to convert the site into a recreational facility, the regulatory agency instructed the city to use a portion of the funds to construct an impermeable, rubberized membrane – a cap – atop the mountainous landfill to prevent rainwater from leaching the buried contents into the adjacent Blackstone River or underground aquifers that feed drinking water supplies.
It’s now an open question whether the the construction of solar arrays at the site would compromise the membrane.
“This is a very detailed process where we have to make sure the city gets this right the first time, because there is no backpedaling,” Baldelli-Hunt said. “Once you agree on terms you’re locked in for 20, 25 years. This is a very long-term contract and it’s important to get it right for the city.”
Follow Russ Olivo on Twitter @russolivo