Solar arrays spark neighbors’ outrage

Do green energy’s mechanical underworks — solar arrays, windmills — threaten the leafy look and rural illusions of Ridgefield’s residential neighborhoods? The selectmen are looking into it.

A large solar array behind a new house being built off Canterbury Lane brought the issue to the selectmen’s attention — thanks to about 10 neighbors who visited the board’s Nov. 28 meeting did.

“Sixty-five solar panels,” said Sanjay Tripathi, the Canterbury Lane neighbor closest to the solar installation. “... Suddenly, it feels like I’m living in a factory zone.”

Visible from every widow looking out the back of Tripathi’s house, past his pool and patio, are two metal frames for ground-based solar arrays, sloped to catch the sun — though at this point the solar system isn’t finished and it’s just the frames.

“The structure is huge,” Betty Masi of Canterbury Lane told the selectmen. “It’s not something you see in a residential neighborhood. It’s factory-like.”

“We’re used to seeing horses and horse farms,” said Greg Dellacorte of Canterbury Lane. “This is very industrial looking.”

In documents presented to the Board of Selectmen, Tripathi described the system as: “65 solar panels each generating 360W on two industrial-stye ground frames, footprint 3,200 square feet."

He estimates each of the two frames as 30 feet long, 20 wide and 18 feet high. ”Each frame bigger than a truck,” his presentation says.

“It was passed as an accessory use and an accessory structure,” Tripathi told the selectmen.

Planning and Zoning Director Richard Baldelli later confirmed for The Press that he had approved a “a ground mount solar array, for premises located at 90 Canterbury Lane” issuing the solar energy system a zoning permit on Nov.13.

“It is my opinion that the proposed solar array is compliant with the minimum yard setback and building height standards,” Baldelli said.

Tripathi has appealed Baldelli’s decision to issue the permit to the Zoning Board of Appeals, and the appeal is scheduled for a hearing on Jan. 7.

Tripathi argues that solar systems of the sort being built beside his house shouldn’t be considered a typical accessory use to a residence — like a swimming pool or a tennis court.

Energy-producing systems the size of those going up on Canterbury Lane present a challenge to Ridgefield’s residential zoning and the small town charm that its designed to protect.

“We’re not thinking about mini-power plants in our backyard,” Tripathi told the selectmen.

Another Ridgebury resident who attended the selectmen’s meeting, Eric Beckenstein of Old Stagecoach Road, questioned how the large solar arrays could be approved as accessory uses “customary and incidental to a residential use” in the language of the zoning codes.

“How is this an accessory structure?” Beckenstein said. “It’s 3,200 square feet!”

Baldelli said the application confirmed the neighbors’ assertion that the completed system would have 65 solar panels in the two arrays, but he thinks it’s smaller than Beckenstein and Tripathi calculate.

“I believe the approximate total square footage is 1,050 square feet,” Baldelli said.

Tripathi told the selectmen he had an appraiser’s report that said his property value would decline dramatically — “$300,000, 20%-to-25% of my home value” — as a result of solar installation that is visible from almost any widow looking out the back of his house.

Tree screen?

Kitsey Snow, a Conservation Commission member who lives in the area, also spoke against the solar system at the selectmen’s meeting.

“It’s so close to the property line, there’s no room for trees,” she said.

Tripathi said he’d spoken with an arborist about trying screen the view of the solar arrays from his property. He was told it would take rows of trees at three different heights and would cost about $30,000 — before the cost of irrigation system the arborist recommended, or on-going maintenance to keep the trees alive.

“These things are so big you can’t landscape them away,” he told the selectmen.

Looking at the photographs in the packet Tripathi provided, at least some of the selectmen were sympathetic.

“It’s hideous,” Selectwoman Barbara Manners said. “... It looks like it belongs at a power plant.”

Still, ugly isn’t against the law.

”I don’t think there’s anything illegal: From a zoning perspective — no; from a building perspective — no,” First Selectman Rudy Marconi said.

The selectmen saw the situation on Canterbury Lane as setting up a push-and-pull between clean and green energy, and a clean and green looking town.

“We want people to get off the grid,” Marconi said.

“This is an eyesore,” said Selectwoman Manners.

And, solar arrays aren’t necessarily the only issue.

“A windmill,” Marconi said. “Someone could put a windmill up next to any one of us.”

The neighbors, too, are aware the green energy is something beneficial for society.

“... We are pro-renewable energy,” Tripathi told The Press: “It is just that: (a) renewable energy doesn't have to be ugly such that it tanks the neighbors property values, and (b) that the use of renewable energy is courteous.

“Renewable energy should not detract from someone’s ability to enjoy the pristine beauty of Ridgefield.”

Selectmen or zoners?

Marconi said that in considering the situation the selectmen would need to look at whether they should try to do something — drafting a town ordinance to put before voters for approval, would be the likely approach  — or whether it might be more appropriate for planning and zoning to write regulations to set rules for alternative energy installations.

One advantage of a town ordinance, Marconi said, is that zoning regulations don’t apply to pre-existing uses — structures and uses that are already exist when a regulation limiting them is passed are generally grandfathered-in as “legal non-conforming uses.”

A town ordinance, he said, can be applied to things already in existence when it’s passed, Marconi said.

John Katz, a member of the Planning and Zoning Commission who was at the selectmen’s meeting where the issue came up, later told The Press he too wondered whether a town ordinance or a zoning regulation was way to control the size and location of home alternative energy systems.

“While it might be more efficient to have this regulated by ordinance, it really is a land use issue and might more appropriately come under zoning jurisdiction,” Katz said.

West Hartford

The 10-page presentation Tripathi gave to the selectmen highlighted the town of West Hartford, which had adopted an ordinance regulating alternative energy systems.

“Build on the West Hartford town ordinance, with additional consideration for Ridgefield,” he wrote. “...No windmills, no parabolic reflectors;  Solar panel preference for roof-mount systems; ground-mount systems subject to additional considerations, e.g.:

  • “Height: eight and half feet high if ground-mounted;

  • “Bulk: No more than 2% of total lot area if ground mounted;

  • “Setbacks: That of permanent structure;

  • “Screening: 360-degree, year-round screening from all portions of neighboring properties.”

The selectmen reached a consensus to have Marconi research what might be done.

Selling to grid

The neighbors at the selectmen’s meeting raised the possibility that allowing the solar arrays off Canterbury Lane might open the door to homeowners setting up their yards with all kinds of alternative energy systems to generate excess power that could be sold to the power grid.

Selectwoman Manners saw the point. “Do we want to allow people to build these big ones to get in the business of selling energy back?” she asked.

“They’re not allowed to do that,” said Kristin Quell-Garguilo, who chairs R.A.C.E, the Ridgefield Action Coalition for the Environment, and was at the meeting. “They’re only allowed to provide 99% of what their house can use.”

The way the alternative energy generation is regulated, homeowners can generate electricity and sell it back to the power company — but they’re limited to the selling back the amount their home uses.

She later told The Press, “ the federal level both EPA and department of energy have regulations that state, residential energy production is restricted to only the power they can use.” If the home is grid tied then they can install a capacity up to 99% and if it is off grid they can produce 100%.”

“If they were to make more than they can use, they would be subject to power plant regulations, through department of energy, which would violate our residential zoning.”

Marconi asked Quell-Garguilo if she and R.A.C.E. would help the selectmen research how different communities had handled this sort of situation.

She agreed — although alternative energy is something the environmental activist generally support.

“I believe the focus and issue is one of not having appropriate zoning code or regulations for this sort of structure,” Quell Garguilo later told The Press. “My hope is to provide through R.A.C.E guidance and information on what steps have been taken in similar communities to help provide effective regulations and restrictions, that doesn’t hinder alternative energy growth but holds us to being good neighbors.”

Tripathi invited the selectmen to visit his house and see the solar arrays.

“Please come to our place and you can see it,” he said. “It’s very upsetting. I’m really losing sleep over this.”