Environmental regulations: Petitioners protest ‘overreach’

Matthew Leonard
Matthew Leonard

Environmentally conscientious homeowners who want to protect themselves from regulations that they believe will restrict them from creating renewable energy sources have created a petition that’s collected a few hundred signatures. 
The petition’s goal is to “prevent the issuance of any law and regulation restricting the installation of solar panels and arrays in the town of Ridgefield.”
It has been distributed in front of several Ridgefield businesses prior to two Planning and Zoning Commission public hearings this month. The first on Tuesday, March 12, will pertain to accessory structures and renewable energy systems as permitted uses in residential zones. The next on Tuesday, March 19, will focus on what green energy sources Ridgefielders might want to add on to their homes in the future, and what steps other towns have either taken or not taken to regulate them.
“The Ridgefield Board of Selectmen is considering the issuance of regulations, which may affect you and other Ridgefield residents, who are environmentally conscientious, and want to help the state of Connecticut reach its mandatory goal of 23% of its energy coming from renewable energy source, by the year 2020,” the petition reads. “The Board drafted a proposed ordinance, pertaining to solar panels and arrays. Some of the proposed restrictions will include glint/glare, screening, height, location, and other aspects of the installation. Moreover, the current draft contains provisions that it is retroactive, so this is not an academic concern.”
The petition warns that the selectmen “may attempt to push regulations via pressure on the Planning and Zoning Commission.”
Ridgefield has a long history in its ... Zoning Regulations of recognizing that governing aesthetics is a dangerous road to travel, including because beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” the petition states.
‘Sheds, garages, cabanas’
Canterbury Lane residents Dane and Smadie Unger are supporting the petition following several meetings in front of the Zoning Board of Appeals that ultimately resulted in a reversal of a permit approval for solar arrays to be built on their property. 
The appeals board determined the array had been improperly permitted because it was approved under regulation governing “outbuildings,” and should have been approved under one covering “other structures.”
Discussion before the board’s ruling left it clear that the owners of the solar array may reapply under the appropriate regulation.
Similar to the petition, the couple is arguing that there are countless types of buildings —outbuildings and other structure — that are allowed without any kind of aesthetic review, mandatory screening, or other conditions. 
“Sheds, garages, cabanas, pool houses, swimming pools, tennis courts, other athletic courts, and many others,” the petitions reads. “The question is what makes solar panels and arrays so different that additional regulations or aesthetic review is necessary?”
Dane Unger called the drafted ordinance “government overreach.”
“There’s been momentum created based on sensationalism,” he said. “The proposed ordinance is retroactive and it’s onerous. It will effect things in town and it’s bigger than just this one application.” 
Rudy reaction
First Selectman Rudy Marconi said he’d seen petitions supporting both sides in the debate over the Canterbury Lane solar array, but neither side’s petition appeared designed to call a town meeting.
“[They are] more informal petitions of people who are siding with each side of the debate,” he said.
While the Board of Selectmen has in the past discussed possibly adopting an ordinance addressing solar installations, and even windmills, at this point the selectmen are waiting to see if the Planning and Zoning Commission does something.
“If we’re going to be seeing a lot more of these, do we want solar arrays in front yards, side yards, backyards?” Marconi said. “Right now they’re being considered an accessory structure, I believe. A lot of towns weren’t treating [them] as such, the 12 or 13 towns we submitted information about, that have already looked at this from a zoning perspective and encompassed guidelines for ground-mounted solar arrays, and also regulations on windmills in terms of height.”
Under the current regulations, no accessory structures can be placed in front yards. 
“The whole issue became more involved than initially thought and that’s why we’ve gone to the Planning and Zoning Commission with it, to see if they’d consider it as a zoning regulation, since that’s how the other communities have addressed it,” Marconi said.
Joe Fossi, vice chairman of the zoning commission, 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,” said Fossi. “I feel strongly that we should encourage renewable energy, but I feel this is a land use decision.”
— Additional reporting by Macklin Reid