Renewable energy controversy sparks hearings in Ridgefield

Photo of Peter Yankowski

RIDGEFIELD — If a homeowner builds a 40-foot garage and bolts solar panels to the roof, is that a garage or a standalone solar array?

And if those panels generate electricity the power company has to give credit to the homeowner, is the homeowner running a business out of his or her house?

Those are some of the questions the Planning and Zoning Commission has raised. The commission said it wants answers before moving ahead with town regulations to define and restrict renewable energy — solar panels as well as wind and other sources.

The commission plans to hold a public hearing Tuesday, March 19, at 7 p.m. in the Board of Education room to learn more about what green energy sources Ridgefielders might want to add on to their homes in the future, and what other towns have done to regulate them.

Separately, the commission also plans to hold a public hearing March 12 to add two amendments to the town zoning laws. One would add an “accessory structure” as a permitted use in a residential zone; the other would add definitions for some of the structures, including “renewable energy systems,” to the regulations, provided that they are not located in the front yard.

“In our research, we have found that most of the communities that have addressed this have done so through the zoning regulations, and not through a town ordinance,” First Selectman Rudy Marconi told the commission.

Marconi said he would bring two experts with him to the informational meeting — Charles Vidich, a planner who has worked on solar energy for decades, and Dwayne Escola of the Ridgefield Action Committee on the Environment, who owns a solar installation company.

Canterbury Lane

The question of whether or not the town should get involved in regulating ground-mounted solar arrays, and other green energy sources, comes after a protracted neighborhood battle over a planned 11-and-a-half foot solar array at a house being built off Canterbury Lane.

The homeowners received an approval to build the structure from the town planning and zoning office, but neighbors have taken the matter to the Zoning Board of Appeals, out of concern that the structure will lower curb appeal and property values.

“If we’re going to incentivize and ask people to move forward with solar arrays and alternative forms of energy — which we want to do, and we want to be proactive — and we’re going to have a lot more of these, do we look at it now and maybe establish some guidelines?” Marconi said.

The regulation would apply to ground-mounted energy generators — like the solar panel frames being built at the Canterbury Lane house, which raised objections from neighbors, the first selectman explained.

The town now has 120 solar arrays, two ground-mounted arrays, with the one at Canterbury Lane a potential third.

There is a solar array installed on the roof of Farmingville Elementary School; and the town has plans to put similar arrays on Scotland and Barlow Mountain Elementary Schools, and Scotts Ridge Middle School.

“It’s not just solar,” said Chairwoman Rebecca Mucchetti. “In New Canaan, there are a couple of windmills. I don’t know if they’re turbines, but there are windmills.”

Commissioner John Katz said he would not want to see the March hearing “get bogged down in technicalities” around electrical metering.

But Planning and Zoning Director Richard Baldelli indicated those details might be important after all.

He said an attorney for one of the neighbors opposed to the Canterbury Lane solar array planned to argue “that because they were using net metering — which means that the excess power goes off the property, and then you get a credit back” that the homeowners “were operating a business.”

Zoning laws

Commissioners seemed in favor of using zoning laws to regulate solar panels and other home green energy generators, as other towns have done, rather than punting the issue to the town for an ordinance.

Commissioner George Hanlon suggested the commission should treat solar arrays and other green energy sources as residential structures.

“You can build a 40 by 50 flat-top garage and put solar panels on top of the structure — so we’re talking structures, not just solar,” he said.

“I think Rudy’s initial question was, do we want to take this on as zoning, or do we want to leave it with the potential of becoming a town-initiated regulation through the ordinance process?” Katz said.

“There are many drawbacks to that, it seems to me, not the least of which is that an ordinance becomes effective immediately,” he added. “If you have ordinances against these kinds of structures, they go bye-bye once the ordinance is passed — zoning doesn’t have that contingency.”

“We’re not just talking about solar panels per se, we’re talking about any and all and future contributions to the renewable energy paradigm, and we need to be prepared to address that,” he said.

Windmill in the yard

He noted the commission is charged with protecting property values, and should consider the impact renewable energy sources could have on a neighborhood.

“And I don’t think we can just willy-nilly allow these things to be erected without some kind of a concept that we need to police it a little bit,” Katz added.

Vice Chairman Joe Fossi said he wasn’t sure if renewable energy should fall under special permit or zoning regulations.

“I think this is a land use issue, and I think we should have a public hearing to discuss it,” said Fossi. “I feel strongly that we should encourage renewable energy, but I feel this is a land use decision, and I don’t think we want someone putting a 100-foot windmill in their backyard.”