Pitkin County sees the light on solar panel regulations
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
The Pitkin County Commissioners decided Tuesday they must maintain regulation of solar arrays on private residences despite the numerous benefits of renewable energy.
The commissioners directed their community development staff to research how much regulation the county can exercise on solar arrays without violating state law.
The five commissioners unanimously professed support for renewable energy but they also made it clear they won’t compromise the Aspen-area’s penchant for requiring development of any type to offset its visual impacts.
“Naively, you should think everything is fine and this is the way to go,” Commissioner Jack Hatfield said about approving residential solar electric systems with little regulation. “If you ruin somebody’s neighborhood by glare, I’m not sure that’s the way to go.
“I start from a sense of having more regulation than less, based on the impacts,” Hatfield later added.
The debate is heating up around the country over the appropriate level of regulation of home solar electric systems. Many rural counties in Colorado don’t regulate how property owners erect solar electric systems, according to Mike Kraemer, a planner in the county’s community development department.
Boulder County, a leader in renewable energy initiatives, performs some regulation on glare from solar panels but it doesn’t set a height limit on free-standing solar arrays that are detached from a home or business.
Santa Barbara, Calif., uses regulations to encourage solar electric in new development, but it also requires “glare analysis” to reduce impacts on surrounding property owners, Kraemer said.
Glare from solar panels and the aesthetics of clusters of solar panels is the biggest issue. A homeowner in Little Elk Creek sparked an intense debate last year with a request to exceed a 10-foot height limit for a free-standing solar array. The county commissioners rejected the request but it was approved by the county Board of Adjustments over the objections of some neighbors.
The county commissioners directed the community development staff in December to study how the board should regulate solar arrays.
Some homeowners associations and private individuals have urged the county to maintain relatively tight controls on solar electric. Solar installers and renewable energy advocates prefer looser guidelines.
“This is a very difficult decision to try to address,” Kraemer said, noting that even the community development staff was divided on the issue.
Pitkin County receives about 50 applications per year for solar arrays. Most of the proposals are for roof-mounted rather than free-standing systems, said Lance Clarke, assistant community development director.
“I would hypothesize that when the economy turns around, every new house will have a solar [system] of some kind,” Clarke said.
The county’s building code has strict energy-efficiency criteria. Homes that don’t offset their energy consumption must pay a fee. Including solar electric is an easy and cost-effective way for builders to offset their consumption and avoid paying the energy fee.
Solar electric is also popular among a lot of environmentally conscious homeowners who want to retrofit existing homes. Many people want to reduce their carbon footprint, achieve energy independence and stabilize their home energy costs.
Commissioner Patti Clapper spoke strongest about easing regulations on solar electric. The county must consider the biggest possible picture – the health of the planet, she said.
Clapper said the county can’t let neighbors use allegations of glare to stonewall homeowners who want to add solar electric. She also warned that state law prohibits counties from adding more than $500 for residential development and $1,000 for commercial development on the review of solar electric systems.
Kraemer acknowledged that the county attorney’s office said a project cannot be turned down because of the alleged glare from solar panels. “We would essentially, in his words, be asking for trouble,” Kraemer said.
The commissioners determined some type of middle ground is necessary. They want to include standard criteria in their land use code for development of solar electric, but preserve flexibility so that individual projects could go to the Board of Adjustments for variances. That would allow property owners who can mitigate glare or visual effects to proceed with projects.
The community development department will take a whack at writing such regulations, then return to the board for review later this year. The entire board supported that direction.
“We can’t have a laissez-faire [approach] just because it’s good for the environment,” said Commissioner George Newman.
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