Solar company wants Concord to reverse rejection of West Portsmouth Street array

  • NextEra Energy Resources solar panels in Alabama that would be similar to the solar farm proposed for West Portsmouth Street in Concord. Courtesy

Monitor staff
Published: 6/5/2018 10:45:44 AM

A company looking to bring a 54-acre solar farm to West Portsmouth Street wants the city to reverse its decision in April to reject the project.

The 10-megawatt renewable energy proposal was denied a zoning variance based on the city’s calculation for “impervious area.”

Under current Concord zoning definitions and rules, the impervious area of each panel is calculated by laying it perfectly flat as if it was a piece of pavement. When viewed in that manner, the proposed solar farm would have almost three times the amount of land coverage allowed in the Residential Open Space district, which allows for only 10 percent of lot coverage.

But NextEra Energy is saying the city’s definition of impervious surfaces should not apply to solar panels because they do not prevent rainwater from reaching the ground and vegetation from flourishing under the panels. The company will be presenting its case during Wednesday’s Zoning Board of Adjustment meeting.

If the city’s calculations included just the base of the panels, power inverter pads, as well as the existing buildings and roads, the total impervious coverage is around 2.5 percent, according to NextEra’s appeal.

Zoning on solar panels is tricky, as there are no state guidelines. However, state law (RSA 672:1.3a) says renewable energy projects shall not be “unreasonably limited by use of municipal zoning powers or by the unreasonable interpretation of such powers except where necessary to protect the public health, safety, and welfare.”

A 2015 state guide urged municipalities to “consider creating exemptions or increasing flexibility for residential solar energy systems with respect to height, setback, lot coverage and impervious surface limitations” because “in some cases, zoning regulations restrict the location of a solar PV (photovoltaic, or electricity-producing) system and prevent it from being located in a way that would be most efficient or even prevent a PV system from being installed altogether.”

In Massachusetts, a model solar zoning regulation put together by the Department of Energy Resources goes further, saying: “It is recommended that solar energy systems with grass or another pervious surface under them be exempted from lot coverage or impervious surface calculations.”

The model regulation goes on to note, however, that such systems should not be exempt from municipal stormwater regulations, “as the panels could have the effect of altering the volume, velocity, and discharge pattern of stormwater runoff.”

Massachusetts has more than 10 times the installed solar power of New Hampshire, largely due to years of financial incentives. Its state law says, “No zoning ordinance or by-law shall prohibit or unreasonably regulate the installation of solar energy systems or the building of structures that facilitate the collection of solar energy, except where necessary to protect the public health, safety or welfare.”

Concord is in the midst of revamping its zoning codes, a topic that has figured heavily in the city’s discussions on whether it should adopt a goal of 100 percent renewable energy by 2050. The city’s Master Plan has also called for increasing renewable energy sources.

The ZBA has made exceptions for solar projects before, such as when they granted a variance to the Unitarian Universalist’s Church allowing two rows of solar panels in front of the building.

In Concord, NextEra argues that denying their proposal is against established policy.

“There is no binding precedent, and now is the time to get the interpretation right, lest solar development be thwarted until such time as the city institutes large scale zoning amendments,” Jeremy Eggleton wrote.

The appeal also states the panels, which would be located in a field leased from BrochuNursey near Exit 16, won’t impact neighbors’ quality of life.

But a few residents have been skeptical of that claim, saying the panels would destroy the view, hurt housing prices and damage the land.

(David Brooks contributed to this story.)

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