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Rhode Island Town Council Reverses Course on Solar Development Projects

In recent years, the development of green energy projects has expanded significantly, both in Rhode Island and nationwide. Wind and solar farms are the most common types of recently constructed renewable energy developments. As the use of fossil fuels for power generation subsides, renewables appear poised to take up the slack in our energy grids. While solar farms are a great way to generate green energy, their installation and use are often opposed by property owners and the municipal representatives who they serve. The Town of Exeter, Rhode Island recently modified its zoning ordinances to prohibit the construction of new solar farms in residential areas, a decision that was challenged at the Rhode Island Supreme Court.

According to a recently published appellate opinion, the plaintiff in the recently decided case is an energy development company that had applied in 2018 with the defendant town to develop three solar field projects. At the time the plaintiff submitted their application, which was submitted as a “pre-application,” the proposed solar farms were permitted under town zoning ordinances. A few months after the plaintiff submitted their application, the Exeter town council amended its zoning ordinances to issue a moratorium preventing the construction of any new utility-scale solar farms in residential areas. This zoning change essentially foreclosed the plaintiff from pursuing their proposed solar projects.

The plaintiff sued the town in state court as a result of the zoning change. The plaintiff argued that their right to be permitted for the construction project had vested before the town changed the ordinance. The plaintiff argued that the town did not have the power to reject their application under the new ordinances because the application was submitted before the laws were changed. The town disputed the plaintiff’s allegations, claiming that the moratorium on new construction was validly passed pursuant to the town’s emergency powers. The town argued that the number of pending applications for solar projects had overburdened the municipality and that they were unable to keep up with the permit requests.

The Superior Court ruled in favor of the town, resulting in an appeal to the Rhode Island Supreme Court. The high court agreed with the Superior Court, ruling that the plaintiff had only submitted a “pre-application” before the ordinance change and that the town was within its emergency authority to pass and enforce the development moratorium. As a result of the appellate opinion, the plaintiff will not be able to develop their solar project in Exeter.

Strategies for Zoning and Permitting Issues

If you are looking to develop or improve property in Rhode Island, one of the first hurdles to clear will be with the municipality where the construction may occur. Town councils and zoning boards are often made up of part-time employees with little knowledge of the law, and their outsized influence in the approval of construction projects can prevent useful and permissible projects from brewing approval. The qualified Rhode Island real estate attorneys with Bilodeau Capalbo, LLP can help you present your project to a skeptical municipal government, and we can assist you in challenging a municipal decision in court if your proposal is unfairly rejected. If you have questions about a Rhode Island property law issue, we’re here to help. Call us at 401-300-4055 for a free consultation.

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