Accessory use permits: Amendment sparks debate on solar arrays

The zoning amendment was about the permits and procedures, not a bitterly-contested solar array — unless you listened to the more than 20 people who spoke at the public hearing.
What the Planning and Zoning Commission did was amend it regulations to clarify that “accessory structures” — gazebos, pergolas, hot tubs or maybe, oh, renewable energy systems — are indeed permitted uses in connection with houses in residential zones.
“If everyone had a solar array or windmill, it would take away from the view,” Randy Liebowitz of Lake Road told the commission, adding that he’d bought his home in part to enjoy the neighborhood’s beautiful views of Rainbow Lake.
“You have to take the neighborhood aesthetics into account in these things,” Liebowitz said. “...You could just have array after array after windmill.”
People who supported the controversial solar array on Canterbury Lane also spoke on the amendment at a March 12 public hearing.
“Every single claim against these solar arrays has been reversed,” said Steve Smith of Turkey Ridge. “... I don’t think Ridgefield wants to be among the less than 1%t of communities saying solar panels are a bad idea.”
The amendment approved was designed to reaffirm the legal grounds for the town zoning office to issue permits allowing accessory structures “such as, but not limited to: detached decks exceeding 200-square feet, gazebos and pergolas exceeding 200-square feet, outdoor kitchens, renewable energy systems, spas/hot tubs etc., provided that it shall not be located in the front yard.”
To avoid misunderstandings, the regulations were also amended to add a definition: “Renewable energy — Energy from a natural source such as geothermal, solar, water, or wind.”
ZBA ruling
This was done in the wake of a ruling in February by the Zoning Board of Appeals, overturning a permit issued for a solar array off Canterbury Lane in Ridgebury that —once it was half built — became controversial and was challenged by a neighbor at the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA). 
The ZBA’s decision appeared to undermine the legal foundation for the issuance of zoning permits for accessory structures and the commission, feeling it best to shore that up, proposed the amendment.
The commission debated possibly removing the “renewable energy systems” from the list of accessory uses — which wasn’t meant to be all inclusive, anyway.
Commissioners also discussed waiting until after they’ve adopted regulations currently being discussed, which would create a set of rules specific to renewable energy systems, like solar arrays and windmills.
“We are identifying what an accessory structure is,” Chairwoman Rebecca Mucchetti said of the amendment. “... Then, we would further develop regulations around renewable energy.”
But ultimately commissioners decided not to fiddle with the proposed amendment at this time. It takes affect March 22, and people who want to put up accessory structures will be able to apply for zoning permits through the town’s online ViewPermit system.
The amendment passed 6-to-3, with Commissioners John Katz, Mark Zeck and Joe Dowdell voting against.
Katz — the most outspoken of the no votes — said he had difficulty with the idea that a renewable energy system that provides a house with all its electrical power could be considered “accessory” to the main use, rather than an integral part of it. But he was not so much opposed to the amendment as in favor of waiting and improving the rule before passing it.
“For us to rush this through is asking for a problem,” Katz said. “... We need to wait and do it more deliberately with more protection for the people who are already here.”
About 30 people turned out for the hearing and, excluding commission members and staff, 23 people spoke. That’s a considerable amount of comment — arguably, a huge amount of comment — for an amendment to the zoning regulations that deals only with procedures and isn’t even attached to a specific development proposal.
Public comment
Of the 23 hearing speakers, 14 opposed the amendment or spoke against the Canterbury Lane solar arrays; four favored the amendment or supported the solar arrays; and five offered more general observations.
“Large solar installations should not be considered as accessory structures,” said Catherine Neligan of Old West Mountain Road.
“This is not an issue of being against renewable energy,” said Kitsey Snow of Canterbury Lane. “This is a siting issue.”
Among the speakers was attorney Matthew Mason, who represents the Ungers, the family that had put up the Canterbury Lane solar array — sparking opposition led by their immediate neighbors, the Tripathi family.
“This is a zoning regulation. This is not a continuation of the Unger-Tripathi dispute,” attorney Mason said.
He argued against separating renewable energy systems, like solar arrays, from other accessory uses.
“There’s no reason solar arrays should be treated any differently,” he said. “... Public policy strongly supports them. The opposition to it is based on aesthetics.”
And, he said, regulating aesthetics is something zoning authorities would be wise to avoid.
“It’s a slippery slope,” Mason said.
Tom Wemyss of Purepoint Energy, the firm building the solar array on Canterbury Lane, answered Commissioner Katz’ concern that a solar system shouldn’t be considered “accessory” if it provides all the energy a home uses to operate. Most alternative energy systems provide only a portion of the needed power, and the houses are hooked into the power grid and served by the local utility.
“I’ve done 250 projects and only one powered 100%,” he said. “... And that was in Haiti on top of a mountain.”
Greg Dellacourt of Canterbury Lane backed up the idea — challenged by attorney Mason — that solar arrays visually intruding into the landscape could reduce the sales value of neighboring houses.
“If less people are interested in purchasing a property, the value goes down,” Dellacourt said. “Supply and demand.”
Several speakers questioned the amendment’s approach in treating alternative energy systems the same as other “accessory uses” that are more traditional in residential zones.
“I don’t think a gazebo is the same as solar panels,” said Cheryl Osher of Pheasant Lane. “Renewable energy systems are far more complex than pergolas, gazebos and decks.”
“They’re nothing like gazebos,” said Tim Suleman of North Street said of solar arrays. “...Those structures do not blend in.”
Eric Beckenstein of Old Stagecoach Road said the proposed amendment wrongly assumes that “any solar system is the equivalent of a gazebo, deck or pool.”
The amendment “is a disproportionate use of authority in response to one ZBA decision,” he said.