Solar siting changes pass Public Hearing

Thu, 03/04/2021 - 5:45pm
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Two years after request was submitted to the Planning Board by Entech Engineering owner Chris Warfel seeking to change the rules against placing solar arrays in front yards, revised Zoning Ordinances on solar siting finally went to a Public Hearing before the Town Council on March 1. The amendments were unanimously approved.

Town Planner Alison Ring, who has been working on the amendments with the Planning Board, provided some background on the solar ordinance proposals.

“The revisions to the solar ordinance originated from a request the council had received from Chris Warfel. The main objective overall of the Zoning amendment request that you had received was to achieve greater flexibility in the siting of solar energy systems within the front setback of a property where appropriate,” said Ring. “At the time, when the Planning Board received this, the state was in the process of finalizing some solar siting guidance and a model ordinance for municipalities. The Planning Board wanted to take the opportunity to review that guidance material and also they were able to get a review of our current solar ordinance – an optional review by the state. We wanted to go through that process and review that material before forwarding any recommendations to the Town Council,” said Ring.

In September the Planning Board finalized the language for the amended ordinance sections 517 and 425 and then passed it onto the Town Council with a memo stating: “Some of the proposed amended language by the applicant was incorporated but additional considerations and amendments were made to ensure a balance was achieved between promoting renewable energy and protecting the island’s scenic and rural character.”

Warfel was present during the March 1 hearing, and noted “this has been a twoyear process, which I did initiate. The real issue comes down to front setback. Under the existing language, you could not put a solar system if it was in the front setback of a property.” The Zoning Ordinance defines a front setback as: “an open unoccupied space on the same lot with the structure extending the full width of the lot and situated between the street line and the front line of the structure projected to the side lines of the lot.”

Although Ring called the crafting of the ordinances a “collaborative and lengthy process, overall, the revisions aren’t a major departure from the current solar ordinance from a policy perspective. We updated some terminology and considered advancements in the technology and overall tried to simplify and clarify things where we could.”

Changes to the ordinances reflect changes in terminology and technology based on state guidelines. There are also subtle adjustments to sizes and guidelines for roof-mounted arrays. The most significant change, by far, is that the size of an array that is allowed before a special use permit must be obtained is reduced from 750 square feet to 400 square feet.

“The revisions attempt to strike a balance between not wanting to discourage solar energy installations, but wanting to provide for an appropriate level of review for certain projects based upon the scale and siting of those proposed solar energy systems,” Ring concluded.

“The board feels it has achieved that balance with these revisions before you tonight,” added Ring.

Some council members voiced approval for the revisions to the solar zoning ordinance.

“I think this strikes a good and rational balance, and I think all of us have the philosophical inclination to have as much solar as we can. I want to applaud the folks who were involved in this for taking the time to see what the state was going to do and come up with a good and elegant solution to this problem,” said Councilor Keith Stover.

“It’s been in the Planning Board’s hands a long time. I think getting this to where it is now is a huge effort. I think it’s in great shape and l look forward to more solar on Block Island,” said Second Warden Sven Risom.

After First Warden André Boudreau’s motion to close the public hearing was approved, he made a second motion to adopt the amendments as presented. The changes were adopted unanimously.