Solar arrays trigger heated debate
Solar arrays off Canterbury Lane prompted two hours of heated discussion before the Zoning Board of Appeals on Monday, Jan. 7. There was no vote, and the public hearing was extended for another session on Jan. 28.
Seventeen people spoke, not counting experts. Most were neighbors supporting the complaint of Sanjay Tripathi, who’d petitioned the Zoning Board of Appeals to overturn Zoning Enforcement Officer Richard Baldelli’s decision to grant a permit for the solar system at a new house next door to Tripathi’s on Canterbury Lane.
“This is an extreme case, said Cheryl Osher of Pheasant Lane, “[it’s] a monstrous structure in the Tripathis’ back yard.”
Defending his decision, Baldelli said that the solar array met the 25-foot setback distances in the zone, and are a relatively small aspect of the four-acre site’s development.
“You have a rather large piece of property with a rather large house on it,” he said. “...You have a 174,000-square-foot lot with a 1,000-square-foot accessory structure on it.”
Dane and Smadar Unger, who are building the new home, attended with a lawyer, a solar designer and a landscape architect. They set out the facts of the project — somewhat different from what had been put forward in previous public discussions, where the owners weren’t represented.
They said the two ground-mounted solar arrays will be 11.5-feet high, with a “footprint” of 1,019 square feet — not 18 feet high with a footprint of 3,200 square feet.
The arrays are 27 feet from the Tripathi property — beyond the required 25-foot setback.
The Ungers also pointed out that the solar arrays aren’t complete yet — what’s there now are just the metal frames — and said they’ll be more attractive when finished. They said they’ve been working with a landscape architect since last April on a plan to screen the view of the arrays from the Tripathi house.
“It’s a matter of taste,” Smadar Unger said of how the solar arrays look. “They’re going to be screened. They’re not going to be able to be seen from anywhere from their house.”
The Ungers were represented by attorney Matthew Mason of the Wilton-based firm Gregory and Adams, Chris Lobdell of the Norwalk solar firm Pure Point Energy, and landscape architect, Brian Cossari of Hoffman Landscapes in Wilton.
“One of the major complaints is the appearance of these structures. They’re not finished,” said attorney Mason.
“The bottom line is Mr. Tripathi does not like the way this unfinished structure looks.”
When completed, solar arrays are often considered attractive, he said.
“Many people consider them sleek and nice, looking,” Mason said.
Attorney Mason countered arguments that the solar arrays should be moved.
“The Ungers have spent more than $100,000 on the design and installation of the solar panels,” he said in a document presented to the appeals board. “They have done so in reliance on the duly issued permits and professional advice from Pure Point and Hoffman Landscaping.
“Based on Pure Point’s analysis, the arrays must be located in their current position because of the septic system location, shading restrictions on other parts of the property, and compliance with property line setbacks.”
He also challenged opponents’ portrayal of the Ungers.
“My clients have been called inconsiderate … They’ve been portrayed as villains,” Mason said.
“Our clients are the victims here. Everything they’ve done is by the book.
“They put together a screening plan back in April, even though there’s nothing in the regulations — paid for a screening plan,” he said. “The Ungers reached out, discussed with Mr. Tripathi their plans.”
Lobdell, the solar designer from Pure Point, challenged critics’ assertions that the solar system was somehow “commercial” because, like nearly all residential solar systems in Connecticut, it was set up to use the grid and, in times of strong sun, return power back to the grid in exchange for credits to help pay future electric bills.
“That doesn’t mean they’re selling it for a profit,” he said.
“It’s sent to the grid. They get a credit for it.”
The solar arrays are projected to provide 66% of the energy used by residence the Ungers are building, Lobdell said.
He said the ground-mount solar arrays the Ungers plan are more efficient and productive than the roof-mounted systems some neighbors had suggested would be preferable.
“With ground-mount you can put it in a location, you can fix the tilt,” he said. “...It can make a lot more economic sense.”
Lobdell also reiterated the point that the solar system’s appearance was being judged when they were just the frames, not the final solar arrays.
“This is an unfinished project. Unfortunately, because of the appeal, we had to stop,” Lobdell said.
“It’s somewhat misleading to look at this — it’s not finished.”
The Ungers’ landscape architect, Cossari of Hoffman Landscapes, showed the row of evergreens he’d discussed with them — at varying heights they were considering, from 11 and half feet to 16 feet tall. The goal, he said, is “to maximize screening, but not reduce power produced by the solar array.”
Siting not solar
Tripathi’s attorney, Keith Ainsworth of New Haven, argued solar energy isn’t the issue — but the non-residential appearance of the solar arrays and the siting of them near the Tripathi house is.
“It’s not about solar power. It’s about how something has been sited,” he said.
“Almost anything can be done in a way that violates what we call the ‘residential expectation’...”
Ainsworth also focused on the specific section of the zoning law that Baldelli had acted under in granting the permit to the Ungers.
Ainsworth said that to qualify as a “customary” and “accessory” use, the solar arrays had to be something not at all unusual in a residential yard, like a birdbath, a doghouse, a potting shed or a garden gazebo.
Cathy Brown of Turtle Ridge Court agreed that the solar system shouldn’t be allowed as an “accessory use” that is “customary” with a house.
“It’s not a shed. It’s industrial,” she said. “...It’s not a gazebo.”
Sanjay Gupta, who lives in the former Yanity home on Main Street a little north of the Gilbert Street intersection, backed Tripathi’s aesthetic concerns.
“How would the town feel if I had solar power panels in front of my house at 531 Main Street?” Gupta said.
Steve Smith described himself as the one neighbor in sympathy with the new family wanting their house to be powered with solar energy — a desirable societal goal, which will become more and more common over time.
“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I guess ugly is in the eye of the beholder, as well,” said Smith
“This is their dream home, and they wanted to do it right,” he said.
“...Everybody calm down. Welcome these people to the neighborhood.”