The Future of Exeter—Solar or More Housing—Farmers Seek Support

Thursday, July 05, 2018
Rachel Nunes, Contributor

Photo: Flickr, Peter Rintels, Field in Exeter, RI

Following a public backlash over proposed solar farms in a number of the rural South County towns, farmers are pushing back in Exeter, saying their livelihoods depend on it.

The narrative is the same, though the names vary: hardworking farmers, many of whom have struggled for years to stay afloat, are running out of options to make ends meet. Without solar, many will be forced to sell parcels of their most valuable asset – land – to be developed said the farmers.

For the town, the decision may be a choice between preserving the farms with solar or having a building boom of new homes as the farmers sell-off. The impact of housing will transform the culture of the town as new schools and new infrastructure demands will increase.

The Town of Exeter will be considering a zoning ordinance amendment that would allow the solar projects to move to the next level of review. Critics of the solar projects claim the solar development will require significant tree cutting. But, some argue that the opposition is more about “not in your backyard” meaning one set of neighbors trying to dictate how other neighbors use their land.

What’s not to love?

Jason Whitford says he is stunned by the opposition. The lifetime farmer says he thought pretty much everyone supported renewable energy and would, therefore, support the proposal. From his point of view, it’s a win-win situation.

“I believe solar is a good neighbor,” Whitford said. “It allows us to tie up land responsibly and avoid residential development.”

Whitford’s family has owned the land for over two centuries, and he hopes to keep it open and in his family for generations to come. But with the cost of farming always on the rise, it’s not always easy to make ends meet. Using several acres of his property for solar panels will allow Whitford to have dependable, year-round income that will help pay for maintenance and operating costs of the rest of the farm.

Aside from open space guarantees, farmers say allowing for solar farms will only benefit the community at large. If the land in question was sold and developed, the new houses and businesses would create a strain on the town’s resources. With more people comes a requirement for better and larger schools, more electricity on the town’s grid, increased waste and trash pickup, more roads to maintain and plow: the list goes on and on. Building solar farms not only prevent these issues, Whitford and others say, but also benefit the town by creating energy for the town to use and generating hundreds of thousands of dollars in tax revenue.

“You can’t have everything,” Whitford ruefully added. “Sometimes, we have to learn to coexist with things we may not necessarily like the look of.”

It’s my property, I’ll do with it what I like

Fran Whitford, a not-so-distant cousin of Jason’s, owns a separate farm in the area and says if she’s not allowed to build solar panels, she could have no choice but to sell her land.

“Especially as a senior, it’s hard to profit as a farmer,” Fran said. “Building the panels would keep the land in the family.”

The issue, in her eyes, is residents who move to the town looking to live in the idyllic countryside with plenty of open land and trees, but who have no regard for those who have lived in the area and worked the land for centuries.

“They have no right to tell us what to do with our property,” she said. “These people come here and try to run the town.”

One major misconception about the solar farms, Fran believes, is the idea that farmers will be using all of their land for the panels. In reality, many including Fran say they plan on using half their acreage or less. Instead of stopping farming completely, the panels will serve as supplemental income to help support the farming on the rest of the land.

“It’s all fear-mongering and scare tactics,” Fran said of the opposition’s argument. “If you don’t like [the panels], don’t look at them!”

The alternative to solar -- may be a boom in new homes in Exeter
The only option available

Bill Stamp, Jr. has dedicated decades of his life to his land. Being a farmer, he says, is a difficult business that he’s stayed with so long because he loves it. Despite this dedication, he says farming is a difficult and complex business.

“It’s not as simple as dropping a seed in the ground and waiting for it to grow,” Stamp said. “Everything involved is complex and expensive.”

Without costly equipment, farms are unable to function. If a farmer cannot afford to keep their farm functional, there is often little option but to sell.

Echoing the sentiments of other farmers, Stamp says keeping the land open through solar farms would allow future generations to decide whether to keep preserve the open space or develop it for housing. Once the land is developed, it is nearly impossible to return it to its original open state. Solar panels, meanwhile, could be removed with little difficulty once the contract with the company is completed.

It’s hard to stay afloat

Jim Andrews says he has had no choice but to work an extra job his whole life, coming home at night to farm his land. He says solar panels are his best and only option.

“It’s hard to stay afloat as a farmer,” Stamp said. “The solar panels would make the farms a little more manageable and make life a little easier.”

Stamp says that while he is not looking to sell his land, he has no way to know what the future holds. In such a volatile industry as farming, one bad year can destroy a farmer’s income.

For Stamp, building solar panels is a far better option than selling the development rights, another option to keep land open. Selling the rights is a complex process that only pays a farmer once. Solar panels are a continuous source of income that farmers can rely on.

The company proposing the solar projects - Green Development said in a statement, “We are working with landowners that want to develop their land. The economics and regulations for Rhode Island farmers have become very challenging and some are struggling to support their families via farming.  We care very much about the future of agricultural and local food in Rhode Island. We need local energy AND local food. Nearly all working farms in Rhode Island have at least one member of the family who works off the farm for dependable income. Using a portion of the land for solar does just that. It creates dependable income for the farmer so they can continue to harvest value from their land.”

Town Council members were unavailable for comment. 

“Let’s consider the right question: not 'solar vs. trees' but rather 'solar vs. other development.' Many of the landowners we are working with want to develop their property in some way and we are providing a beneficial alternative to housing,” added Green Development.

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