Solar farm dispute has neighbors alleging broken promises

WARWICK, R.I. (WPRI) — Several residents who live alongside a Warwick solar farm said the project they were promised in 2016 was the not the project that was built.

Steve Laprocina and Roy Hodge, along with several of their neighbors, had to read through documents, attend city council meetings and argue for what they wanted as the proposed solar farm along West Shore Rd. went from master plan in June 2016 to an approved final plan in May 2017.

But somewhere in between, the language specifying that Southern Sky Renewable Energy’s solar farm and the neighbors homes would be separated by “substantial screening” — what Laprocina and Hodge said was an agreed upon eight-foot wall of evergreens to help reduce wind and noise — was removed.

“I felt good that, in this day and age, who would want to screw the neighbors?” Laprocina said.

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Instead, after the project was approved, Southern Sky planted one-to-two foot tall rhododendrons.

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“I wasn’t notified as far as what the final proposal was,” Hodge said.

Initially, the neighbors said the Southern Sky Renewable Energy proposal for West Shore Road seemed to work for everyone: Southern Sky would have its roughly 10-acre solar farm, and the city would have a new source of green energy. One Warwick official said the farms helps provide roughly 30% of the power for the city’s municipal buildings, street lights, etc.

And the neighbors would have their wall of trees, planted to block the view of the farm and decrease wind and road noise. Both neighbors told Target 12 they support solar farms and green energy initiatives.

A Target 12 examination of city records found a Southern Sky document stamped Nov. 7, 2016, which shows the trees the neighbors expected.

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Southern Sky Renewable Energy’s proposed buffer on Nov. 7, 2016

Another document, stamped by Warwick’s planning department on the same date, shows the tree border separating the neighbors and the solar farm.

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But the end result was very different, according to the neighbors.

Both Laprocina and Hodge said their properties have experienced severe wind damage since the solar farm was built — damage they said the barrier of evergreens might have prevented.

“The wind blew a nice Weber grill off my deck onto the hood of my wife’s car, damaging both,” said Laprocina, who subsequently built a $12,000 reinforced wood fence.

For Hodge, it’s a similarly, expensive, story.

“I actually lost 13 sections of this fence from the wind,” Hodge said. “With the wind picking up, I also had a swing set built already before the solar farm, I also had a trampoline before the solar farm.” 

Southern Sky sold the West Shore Road solar farm to Captona in 2019. Neither company returned Target 12’s repeated calls for comment.

City of Warwick Principal Planner Luke Murray said Warwick is one of many cities and municipalities across the state currently without a city ordinance regulating solar energy developments, proper procedures or requisite landscaping.

Murray became the city’s principal planner in 2018 — after Southern Sky’s final plan was already approved.

Because he arrived after the approval, Murray said there are limits to what he can do.

“I can’t tell a property owner they have to plant trees,” Murray says.

Murray said Warwick’s city council will consider a 19-page solar ordinance proposal in June, which specifies what landscaping around solar farms must look like.

Tolly Taylor (ttaylor@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for 12 News. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook