Proposed rules would discourage Westport solar projects

Proposed rules would discourage Westport solar projects


To the editor:

The As-of-Right Small Scale Solar Energy Systems Zoning Regulation proposed by the Westport Planning Board, if passed at Town Meeting, will act as a deterrent to most Westport residents who want to install solar.

If the solar energy zoning bylaw being proposed by the Westport Planning Board is adopted in its present form, many Westport residents will be prevented from installing photovoltaic (PV) solar electric systems on their property. Portions of the proposed bylaw are at odds with the state’s mandate to promote solar energy.

The bylaw has two main sections. The first section covers small scale systems while the second section covers large scale systems. My comments here are directed solely at the As-Of-Right Small Scale Solar Energy Systems provision of the proposed bylaw.

The proposed bylaw does not give an actual electrical size, in KW, for small scale ground mount but instead bases the category on the land or roof area covered. From a practical point of view it appears that systems below about 20 KW would be considered small scale so the bylaw would essentially apply to everyone in Westport desiring to install solar PV. In contrast, the State Model Zoning Bylaw considers small scale solar to be 250 KW and below. This means that the town would place restrictions on ten times the number of solar installations than what the state considers reasonable.

Ground mount systems are severely penalized compared to roof mount systems. The proposed bylaw requires that ground mount systems be located at least 50 feet from residential side-yard lines.

A 2012 study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) (a division of the U.S. Department of Energy) estimates that only about 22% of existing roofs are suitable for PV installations. This can be due to shading, roof pitch, roof orientation and other constraints. This means that 78% of Westport residents desiring to install a PV system would have to use a ground mount. There are many older homes in Westport on very small lots. These lots may simply not have enough space to comply with the proposed bylaw. Even if there were enough space, the available area left after the application of the setback requirement may be shaded or otherwise unsuitable for a solar PV installation. In contrast, if you are in the fortunate minority which happens to own a home with a suitable roof orientation, you would be able to install a PV system on your roof, even if the roof happened to be 10 feet from the lot line. This result is clearly unfair and prejudicial to the majority of Westport residents. It also conflicts with our state’s policy of promoting solar installations.

The proposed side yard requirement is unwarranted because it serves no legitimate purpose and it will result in denying a large number of our residents the right to install a solar system.

The proposed bylaw limits the height of ground mount systems to no more than 10 feet. In contrast, roof mount systems can be as high as the existing roof, which for new construction is 40 feet. Actually, the proposed bylaw even allows roof mount systems to be a little higher than existing roofs. Here again, the proposed bylaw favors roof mount systems over ground mount systems. What may not be commonly known is that in order to achieve the lowest cost ground mount, it is often necessary to stack solar panels in increments of four panels high. An added benefit of this stacking is that it minimizes the amount of ground area required. Because many panels are about 3.5 feet wide, the most economical ground mount is often about 12-15 feet high, allowing for

some ground clearance. This height is still far below the 40 foot height allowed for other structures. The proposed bylaw would prohibit economical design driving up costs for Westport homeowners. Using a 3 panel high ground mount will require the array to be larger and take up substantially more ground area thereby creating a greater impact on the environment and reducing land area for other uses.

In sum, the effect of the proposed dimensional requirements is first to diminish the available area, then to limit the height, thereby requiring greater dimensional area. Many homeowners would find themselves in a Catch 22 paradox. This bylaw would place an unnecessary dimensional squeeze on the majority of Westport homeowners wishing to install solar. Residents desiring to decrease their electricity costs, reduce our dependence on foreign oil importation, help lessen rising CO2 levels, and increase distributed power generation should not have these goals thwarted by an overly burdensome bylaw, particularly when the dimensional bylaw provisions serve no justifiable purpose.

In March 2012, the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources and Office of Environmental Affairs published a Model As of-Right Zoning Bylaw. The Model Bylaw restates that existing Massachusetts law largely exempts solar photovoltaic installations from local zoning restrictions. The Model Bylaw goes on to say that “In view of M.G.L. ch. 40A §3, local zoning provisions specifically allowing for as-of-right construction of smaller solar energy systems – such as those commonly installed on top of or on the lot of a home or business – are unnecessary.” In other words, the state does not consider zoning bylaws, such as the one being proposed, as necessary. The wisdom of these agencies should be heeded. In fact, in light of the State’s interpretation, there would seem to be a real question as to whether these bylaw provisions would even be legally enforceable.

Bert Lance, onetime director of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, popularized the phrase ,“if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Rather than attempting to impose restrictions which have no discernible benefit but that will certainly have a substantial negative impact on our residents, we should leave well enough alone and delete the small scale solar energy provision from the proposed bylaw. Additionally, the definition of large scale solar should be modified so that only systems 250 KW and larger are subject to the bylaw.

Paul L. Gay