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Friday, May 15, 2020

Court dumps SLAPP suit against town of Exeter

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

Green Development LLC logoOne of two lawsuits contesting solar-energy projects in Exeter was denied last month in Rhode Island Superior Court, dealing a potential blow to other legal actions taken by one the state’s largest renewable-energy developers.

The April 20 decision derails one of several court filings by North Kingstown-based Green Development LLC against rural communities that are struggling with solar sprawl.

Associate Justice Jeffrey Lanphear ruled that Exeter’s planning and zoning boards acted properly when they rejected the developer’s 7-acre solar project in 2018.

“The Planning Board thoroughly and conscientiously reviewed the facts of the application and reached a sound conclusion,” Lanphear wrote in his 30-page decision.

Green Development, which has been criticized for developing utility-scale wind and solar on open space, filed the first lawsuit after both boards found that the project failed to comply with Exeter’s goal of maintaining its rural character as defined in its comprehensive plan. 

As an industrial project, the proposed solar installation also exceeded the amount of space allowed for development on the 15-acre lot on Exeter Road.

Green Development’s attorney, John Mancini, argued in Washington County Superior Court that town planner Ashley Hahn-Sweet and Planning Board member Francis DiGregorio were biased against the project and should have recused themselves. Mancini accused them of wrongfully consulting with an independent attorney. EDITOR'S NOTE: Ashley Hahn-Sweet served as Charlestown's town planner for several years. - W. Collette

Hahn-Sweet, he argued, also tried to influence the Planning Board when she issued a memorandum saying that the project should be denied because it violated zoning rules and threatened habitat and natural aspects of the property. The project required leveling 7 acres of open space and removing the entire forested section of the property.

Lanphear said Exeter’s part-time planner was simply offering her professional opinion in the memo.
Exeter passed an ordinance in 2015 that set regulations for solar development. Proposals now require a special-use permit and compliance with the town’s comprehensive plan.

Green Development accused DiGregorio, now a Town Council member, of prejudging the case when he made a “no solar” comment during a Feb. 27, 2018 Planning Board meeting.

Lanphear reviewed the meeting’s minutes and noted that the quote was taken out of context.

“Mr. DiGregorio simply made an adverse finding against (Green Development), which in itself is not sufficient to prove bias,” Lanphear wrote.

Lanphear also singled out Green Development for naming public officials in a lawsuit that contested an administrative decision.

“Such lawsuits may serve to have a chilling effect on public officials, who may worry about taking controversial actions out of fear of being sued,” Lanphear wrote.

Green Development’s solar project was being reviewed during a power struggle with the Town Council. On July 26, 2018, the council amended the zoning rules for 15 lots, including several Green Development sites, to allow solar construction as a matter of right, thereby circumventing approval from other boards. 

The Planning Board and town planner objected to the amendment, finding that it didn’t comply with the town’s comprehensive plan.

In November 2018, several Town Council members were voted out of office and new members revoked the amendment. Green Development fought for the original rule change in court but was denied in 2019.

Green Development is also suing Hahn-Sweet, DiGregorio, the Town Council, and the town treasurer for $200 million for blocking the company’s solar projects in Exeter and for helping North Smithfield establish solar-siting rules. Green Development is suing Coventry for $85 million for denying and stymying solar projects.

Green Development was denied last August in a similar lawsuit against the Coventry Zoning Board of Appeals. The court action was filed after Coventry denied two ground-mounted solar projects and the town issued a cease-and-desist order for unauthorized construction at one of Green Development’s properties.

Green Development hasn’t said if it will appeal the latest court decision. The company didn’t respond to a request for comment.