Aesthetics of alternative energy: Town prepares a law, but will it help?

A town ordinance to limit the visual impact of alternative energy installations — solar arrays, windmills — is in the works, but it may not apply to the Ridgebury solar system that led a group of neighbors to draw town officials’ attention to the issue.

The selectmen are having a proposed ordinance researched and drawn up. But the solar arrays that neighbors complain are too industrial looking for their residential Canterbury Lane area are being built under a permit issued by the town zoning department — which may put the installation beyond reach of a new law, should a town meeting eventually approve one.

“It’s confused by the fact a permit was issued by the Town of Ridgefield,” First Selectman Rudy Marconi told the selectmen’s Dec. 12 meeting. “We’re in a gray area. We, as a town, issued a permit.”

The selectmen still intend to move ahead with writing an ordinance to set some standards for alternative energy installations — they feel the issue goes beyond a single neighborhood.

“We don’t want to focus it on a particular situation,” Marconi said.

“...We’ll have it on the agenda the ninth of January.”

An ordinance would have to be approved by voters at a town meeting, but it’s not an issue where everyone can be expected to agree.

“There are some people who feel that’s the future — we have to get off the grid,” Marconi said.

Few models

Marconi has been researching the issue with town attorneys and groups like the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities since about 10 neighbors came to the selectmen’s Nov. 28 meeting, complaining of a ground mount solar array being put up off Canterbury Lane.

Not many towns have laws governing alternative energy installations, but Marconi found a few that can be drawn on for background.

“We’ll use Smithfield, R.I., West Hartford and New London,” Marconi said.

“New Canaan hasn’t thought about this yet?” said Selectman Steve Zemo. “Good for us, we’re on the cutting edge.”

The ordinances Marconi has found offer a variety of perspectives. New London’s is over 100 pages long, and governs solar arrays, windmills and dish antennas.

“You can have a windmill 80-feet high,” Marconi said, but the city requires “a setback at least equal to the height of the structure.”

Zemo wondered if alternative energy structures might be addressed with “a combination of an ordinance and zoning regulations.”

He said it seems something Planning and Zoning could address with its comprehensive regulations.

“They need to adjust to that with coverage and setbacks and screening.”

Selectman Bob Hebert asked what specific kinds of alternative energy equipment the new ordinance would address.

“Solar panels? Windmills?” he said.

“It’ll address all of that,” Marconi said. “A windmill is going to need a footing — it’s a structure.”

Permit problem

“This is all great,” said Sanjay Tripathi, the Canterbury Lane neighbor most affected by the solar installation there. “What are the chances it’ll solve the situation I’m facing?”

Marconi said that discussions with the town attorneys at Cohen and Wolf had left some doubts about whether a new ordinance would apply to the solar arrays off Canterbury Lane that brought Tripathi and his neighbors to the selectmen’s previous meeting.

“A permit has been issued by the Town of Ridgefield,” Marconi said.”Can we, if we were to pass an ordinance, have something apply to something already approved by the Ridgefield Zoning Commission — that’s what the attorney brought up. I don’t know the answer to that.”

Tripathi and others in the neighborhood said they don’t object to alternative energy installations in principle, but find what’s being built on Canterbury Lane too industrial looking and intrusive for their residential zone.

Tripathi said he thought an ordinance ought to be able to address the appearance of solar arrays while still allowing them. He liked language that spoke of keeping installations in harmony with the surrounding neighborhood.

“The harmony word is interesting. If it could be made in harmony,” he said.

“Put three or four sheds on you property, and put it on the roof of the sheds.” he suggested.

The selectmen wondered what kind of efforts had been made to talk to the neighbor who is putting up the solar arrays beside Tripathi’s house.

“They canceled two meetings,” Tripathi said.

Marconi said he’d try to reach out and see if he might have better luck just seeking a solution agreeable to everyone.

“I’d certainly like to be able to use the olive branch,” he said.