NORTH SALEM, N.Y.— The North Salem Town Board approved a resolution April 25, amending its zoning for solar energy systems.

The amendments were made to Chapter 250 of the town’s zoning code and were passed unanimously.

The North Salem Planning Board began its discussions a year ago, as more and more property owners began turning to solar panels to provide energy for their homes.

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As it formulated the specifics of the code changes, the Planning Board collected information from the state, neighboring towns and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA).

The resulting proposals were then sent to the town board for approval on April 25.

Planning Board Chair Cynthia Curtis said the intention was 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 require approval by the Planning Board.

Previous town zoning was non-existent on solar panels, either roof or ground-mounted, so the planning board felt it important to act “as expeditiously as possible.”

“We decided early on that we wanted to recommend that all North Salem properties––both residential and commercial––be allowed to install solar panels as an accessory use by right, but only for the needs and use of their property. That is, no commercial ventures,” said Planning Board Chair Cynthia Curtis.

The new solar code revision calls for limiting ground-mounted installations to 1,000 square feet or less. Installations greater than that would require site plan approval from the planning board. 

Board members felt that the 1,000 square feet would be sufficient for most residences or farms to complete their installations without the need for approval by the planning board. 

All commercial properties, however, would still have to apply to the planning board for amended site plan approval, as they would for any improvements to their property.

The new zoning code places restrictions on the locations solar panels can be placed.

Ground-mounted solar installations cannot be built on steep slopes, defined as 15 percent or greater covering an area of 500 square feet or more.  Properties that are listed on the local historic registry would require a certificate of appropriateness. Installations within a wetland control area would require a wetland permit.

The code also specifies that ground-mounted installations cannot be located in front of a principal building, unless there is a minimum setback of 200 feet from the property line and there is adequate screening to minimize their view from the street and adjacent properties.

Ground installations for solar panels are necessary if a property owner does not have enough roof space, the proper exposure, or trees that might block the panels’ efficiency.

Curtis said the 1,000 square foot threshold for ground installations does several things. It encourages roof installations as a preference, and allows for better oversight and “keeps potential impacts” to a minimum.

“We drafted the law so that every property owner in the town of North Salem could benefit by switching to solar energy if they chose, through the easiest possible set of solar regulations we could put together,” Curtis explained.

For single family homes and farms, property owners would simply go to the town’s building inspector for a permit. The only installations that would require site plan approval from the Planning Board are ground installations of more than 1,000 square feet. 

The new code also defines how much solar energy a homeowner and business is permitted to generate with their solar panels.

“If you put it on your roof, whether it’s your house roof, garage roof or barn roof, you could put as much as you need up to 110 percent of your energy usage. Basically you are just to provide the electricity for yourself, for your use, on your property,” Curtis said.

The town’s building inspector will be using the so-called “Unified Solar Permit” to make the processing of an application consistent with other towns who have adopted the Unified Permit, Curtis said.

The Unified Permit is a standardized form created by NYSERDA for municipalities to streamline their solar permitting and inspection process.  Local governments that adopt the Unified Solar Permit are eligible for grant funding to implement the new procedures.

Supervisor Warren Lucas indicated he would submit the paperwork to NYSERDA for an estimated $2,500 that the town would be eligible for.

Curtis said she’s pleased that the code revisions have been adopted, adding that it was essential the changes were made in a timely manner, both to take advantage of grant money and to ensure smooth sailing for solar panel applications that are currently pending.

“We have one installation that’s a ground installation, and that’s what triggered this. We needed to bring our code up to date,” said Curtis, adding, “I’m thrilled that this went fairly quickly and easily and that everybody on the town board supported it.”