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Residents Rain on Planning Board's Solar Power By-law

Question reasonableness of limited restrictions; aesthetics or carbon footprint on center stage.

Members of a Belmont town committee and residents concerned with a maiden attempt by the BelmontPlanning Board to place limited restrictions on the installation of solar panels are seeking to stop the measure from coming before .

In an e-mail dated Nov. 14 and presented to the board for its Tuesday, Nov. 15 meeting in Town Hall, Roger Colton, co-chairman of the town’s Energy Committee, said that the language in the Planning Board's proposed "Solar Power Generation By-law Zoning Amendment" is "unacceptable as written."

Despite Colton's and others objections, the Planning Board is forging ahead with amending an existing by-law to regulate how solar energy structures can be installed on homes and businesses.

But the board did decide to take all the comments made at the night's meeting into consideration and will deliberate whether to make any changes to the existing language before the Town Meeting warrant closes on Dec. 5.

“We’re in striking distance of what can be presented to Town Meeting,” said Planning Board member Andy Rojas.

“This has always been seen as a work in progress,” he said.

For instance, Rojas said an important issue residents raised at the public hearing – flat roofs could not have solar installations mounted in the same way as sloped ones – should not stop progress on the amendment.

“If we can get guidelines for (the flat roofs) I think we should (go ahead and continue working on the amended bylaw),” Rojas said.

Moreover, Planning Board Chairman Sami Baghdady said the Board of Selectmen asked his group to create a bylaw pertaining to solar energy structures.

“If we have to sit down before Dec. 5 to discuss this, let’s fulfill our obligation to the selectmen and put our best effort forward,” he said.

Baghdady said he and the Planning Department's Jeffery Wheeler, who is acting as the board's coordinator, will work on the public comments and write a new draft of the zoning bylaw.

The Planning Board will devote its entire Nov. 29 meeting on the draft.

Concerns pertaining to restricting use of solar energy

During last night's meeting, Wheeler outlined the amended bylaw, showing photographs of structures that would be considered suitable and allowed by right in Belmont as well as those that would be "an eyesore."

According to state law, the town cannot prohibit or "unreasonably" regulate placement of solar energy systems.

“Belmont will be one of the first communities to regulate for small-scale systems,” Wheeler said.

The purpose of the proposed bylaw, said Wheller, is to make sure the systems are properly sited on residential and commercial properties; to protect the community from commercial intrusion into residential areas; and to protect the public health, safety and welfare of Belmont residents.

Wheeler said rooftop photovoltaic panels over the expanse of a roof would be allowed by right as long as they are limited to no more than 12 inches above the adjacent roof pitch.

The rules would be somewhat different for freestanding solar arrays that might require a Special Permit – which will require homeowners or businesses to make their case before the town's Zoning Board of Appeal – but, even so, could not be placed in front yards and not more than six feet above the adjacent grade.

Should residents and businesses need relief from those regulations, the Planning Board would allow them to seek a special permit through the Zoning Board of Appeal.

Copies of the zoning bylaw amendment are available for review at the Office of Community Development and the Town Clerk’s office.

Later today, Nov. 16, an entire page devoted to this issue will be posted on the Office of Community Development’s website.

But Colton – whose committee was charged by the Board of Selectmen to reduce the town's carbon footprint by 80 percent based on the community’s 2007 emissions – contends that many of the Planning Board's restrictions are unreasonable including requiring residents seeking modifications of height restrictions via a Special Permit, which Colton believes is not only unreasonable according to state law but also "unlawful."

Colton – who is traveling and could not make his statement in person – believes the Special Permit requirement for violations on the height of the system on the roof and the ground and the contours "is a thinly veiled effort to circumvent" the state statue that clearly states that "no zoning ordinance or by-law shall prohibit ... the installation of solar energy systems ..."   

John Kolterman, co-chairman of Sustainable Belmont, wondered what would happen if solar panels are 18 inches off the roof.

“Then you would seeks a special permit and, if it’s convincing that’s the only way to do it, we will grant it,” said Rojas.

Kolterman said in his opinion, a special permit means resistance and asked if that might deter homeowners from going forward with solar panels and deter installers from coming to Belmont.

“Why should a special permit be required at all?” he asked.

“Our intent is not to exclude these energy systems but it is a new concept and we are looking at how to site them (in a way) that will be most acceptable to members of the community to maintain and increase property values in Belmont,” Baghdady said.

Slate Street's Roger Wrubel asked what would happen if someone wants to put a solar system in an upright position which harvests 75 percent of solar energy as opposed to a parallel position that would only yield 59 percent for energy use.

Board members pointed out, that’s what would be weighed under a special permit.

“This (amended bylaw) is not a way to disapprove,” said Rojas. “This is a way to put everything together.”

Wrubel also referred to an occurrence in California where someone installed a solar panel, a neighbor then planted shade trees and, within time, the energy system was rendered useless.

Planning Board members agreed that there will certainly be court cases about such situations that we all be will reading about in the near future.

Jan Kruse, a member of Sustainable Belmont and its liaison on the Belmont Energy Committee, commended the board for being pro-active on the issue of solar energy systems but asked if the language of the amended bylaw had been vetted with professional solar installers and suggested the board get perspective from such professionals.

Jennifer Page, also a member of Sustainable Belmont, asked how the board defines public welfare: Is it what is acceptable to neighbors and aesthetically pleasing?

“I would say there’s another way to define it,” Page said. “It’s a way to save our planet and (therefore) there should be maximum latitude in using alternative sources of energy.”

Baghdady said he is fully in support of preserving the planet but, at the same time, the board has to balance that philosophy with housing values and community response.

Scott December 07, 2011 at 11:27 PM
I'd really like to see the speculative "eyesore" complaints be done away with. It's ironic that such complaints would come from residents that live in a comparatively unsightly town that's tightly packed with tri-deckers sitting atop minuscule parcels of lawn. That doesn't bother anyone? Their arbitrarily acquired aesthetic preferences should never outweigh environmentally beneficial and completely practical conventions. But alas, I suppose a pathetic and useless rosebush does serve much more purpose than a solar water heater. Sarcasm and unabashed deprecation aside, I do hope the town can set the guidelines without discouraging prospective buyers or unreasonably limiting installation.

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