Planners to hold hearing on renewable energy March 19

If a homeowner builds a 40-foot garage and bolts solar panels to the roof, is that a garage or a stand-alone solar array? And if those panels generate electricity that the power company has to give credit to homeowners, are the homeowners running a business out of their house?
Those are some of the questions the Planning and Zoning Commission raised at its Feb. 19 meeting. The commission wants answers to these and other questions before moving ahead with town regulations to define and possibly 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 either taken or not taken 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-high solar array at a house being built off Canterbury Lane.
The homeowners received permits to build the structure from the town planning and zoning office, but a neighbor took the matter to the Zoning Board of Appeals.
“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 solar arrays — like the solar panel frames being built at the Canterbury Lane house, which raised objections from a dozen or so residents, the first selectman explained.
The town currently has 120 solar arrays and two ground-mounted arrays, with the one at Canterbury Lane being the 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 the attorney of the neighbor who opposed the Canterbury Lane solar array argued “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.”
The Zoning Board of Appeals countered that’s not how net metering works, and dismissed the attorney’s argument at its meeting in February.
Zoning laws
Commissioners seemed in favor of handling the issue of whether or not to regulate solar panels and other home green energy generators within the Planning and Zoning Commission, 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?” said Katz.
“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,” said Katz.
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.”