As the popularity of solar energy continues to grow among homeowners, the North Salem Planning Board is considering amendments to the town’s zoning laws regarding the renewable energy source.
On Wednesday, Sept. 7, the panel began debating some newly drafted amendments to the existing town code with regard to solar panel installation systems. According to the draft document, the amendments seek to “balance associated potential impacts of solar energy systems, while preserving the ability of property owners to install appropriately sized and located facilities within the town’s residential and non-residential zoning districts.”
Planning Board Chair Cynthia Curtis said the intention is to clearly define what an accessory solar energy system is, and at what point the system would require more than just a permit from the town’s building department and instead require approval by the Planning Board.
She said the current code does not differentiate regulations if solar panels are on the ground or on a house.
“We’re taking some baby steps in getting it into the code,” she said. “The only thing that we’re making different is if the system is on the ground, and it’s a very large system, it might raise the concerns of neighbors or the neighborhood.”
The code revision calls for limiting ground-mounted installations to less than 1,000 square feet. In addition, they would also place location restrictions on them. Under the proposed plan, ground-mounted solar installations cannot be built on steep slopes defined as 15 percent or greater; on wetlands; or on designated federal, state and local historic districts.
Ground-mounted installations also cannot be located in a front yard, and must be set back a minimum of 10 feet behind the front wall of the principal building on the lot to minimize their view from the street and adjacent properties.
The restrictions raised the concern of resident Bill Monti.“Why should there be any limitation at all?” Monti asked. “It’s not a limitation,” Curtis responded. “It’s triggering another level of permit that perhaps a larger system should go before the Planning Board or another board for review.”
Curtis said the town doesn’t want to allow installations to remain unchecked and become “solar farms.”
“I don’t think we’re ready to embrace that right now,” she said. “That’s the position the Planning Board is taking. Every residential property can cover their roofs; it’s just the ground-mounted system that we think needs to be a little bit regulated in case they get very large."
The sentiment was echoed by planning board member Gary Jacobi.
“We don’t want somebody who’s on a quarter-acre lot putting up a third of an acre of solar panels,” he said.
Resident Lewis Kohl told the board he didn’t like the code’s restriction on solar’s power capacity.
“I found the comment on the [zoning proposal] document very encouraging and appreciate that you’re encouraging alternative energy,” Kohl said. “But I disagree with the part where the system should not exceed 110 percent of the needs of the premises. If the energy gets sold to someone else and the homeowner doesn’t get credit, why do we care? My panels are old now. They’re not as efficient as newer panels. If I can produce more energy, I’d like to have a system that could power batteries. So a system of 110 percent will allow me to get there.”
Kohl argued that if homeowners are staying within all the other guidelines, newer systems will be smaller and more efficient and will likely produce more energy than a homeowner needs.
He has a rooftop solar system installed on his home and a building on the property which, he says, has led to appreciable savings.“There was a time I was paying $1,200 a month for electricity in the summer. With the solar panels, it’s down to $60, if that,” he said.
Fellow Planning Board member Christopher Brockmeyer said, “At this point I think we are all in agreement that we want to create the distinction between an individual property owner whether it’s a commercial property owner or a private owner, vs. a solar farm that’s producing energy as a for-profit venture.”
Solar energy system zoning codes vary in neighboring communities. For example, there are no solar restrictions or regulations regarding the installation of solar panels either roof or ground-mounted in Somers and Yorktown.
Bedford zoning code specifies that solar installations be 10 percent or less for rooftop installations and no more than 15 feet above the roof. There are no restrictions on ground-mounted solar panels in Bedford.
In Lewisboro, roof-mounted solar panels must be integrated on the surface layer of the roof structure with no change in relief or projection. Separate flush-mounted solar panels must be located on a rear or side-facing roof, unless it’s ineffective or impossible.
Lewisboro code states ground-mounted solar panels must be located in a side or rear yard only and cannot exceed eight feet in height above the ground and must be fully screened to adjacent properties with either fencing or a combination of evergreen or deciduous plantings.
The North Salem Planning Board did not vote on the proposed amendments and opted to continue the discussion on the proposed changes. Officials say they are planning to have the town’s Historic Preservation Commission weigh in on it, as well as town building inspector Paul Taft at future meetings.
Once the Planning Board makes changes, it will then go to the Town Board, which will weigh in on the amendments and schedule public hearings on the matter.