Concord punts on solar changes decision

Monitor staff
Published: 6/11/2019 5:29:05 PM

The Concord City Council put the brakes on new regulations for solar developments in the city after several farmers and clean-energy advocates said the policy was too restrictive.

David Murray, a fourth-generation farmer who owns Murray Farm Greenhouse, said the ordinance changes would affect his business’s ability to make revenue from renting out land.

“In these current economic times ... the needs of every single farmer needs to be looked at pretty carefully,” he said.

City Councilor Rob Werner made the motion to table the ordinance. The move means the changes to solar regulations won’t come back up until a councilor decides to revive the issue.

Most of the public testimony Monday night dealt with how the city would calculate lot coverage in regards to solar panels and restrictions put on certain rurally-zoned districts.

The city calculates lot coverage by measuring how much an impervious surface covers a parcel. Under current zoning rules, the impervious area of each panel is calculated by laying it perfectly flat.

Under the proposed changes, Concord will use a solar land coverage calculation utilizing the perimeter of the development instead of individual components. This would include the space between the panels. The method would be able to give residents a better image of what the project would look like and how much land it would cover, staff said.

The proposal sets a hard cap at 25 acres using the city’s solar land coverage calculation for any development except in the industrial district, which accounts for a relatively small amount of city land along pockets of Interstate 93 and off Loudon Road.

In the open space residential district, for example – the most common zoning in the city that prioritizes open, green space – a commercial solar project could cover only 40% of the lot; a community project with multiple users or buyers could cover 50%. In all other allowed districts, solar could cover anywhere from 60% to 85%.

Staff designed the changes that way in hopes that developers will look to build on sites like former landfills rather than on open space, according to city documents.

Those who spoke at the meeting said the changes don’t reflect how solar can be used and would present challenges to landowners looking to lease their land.

Lewis Farm owners Rebecca McWilliams and James Meinecke, who are looking to build their own 13-acre solar array on their 130-acre property, said the cap would be “incredibly restrictive” to their property and that renting their land would allow it to remain open and rural.

They also said the land in between panels shouldn’t be counted in the equation because it can be used for other open-land uses.

“We’ve been boxing and barreling and busheling sunlight for longer than anyone else,” Meinecke said. “This is not a power plant ... it’s open space.”

Robert Carey, an attorney with Orr & Reno representing NextEra Energy (who tried to bring a 50-plus acre solar farm to Brochu Nursery land about a year ago) warned that limiting large-scale solar to industrial zones would crowd out uses better suited for industrial land.

“Underneath this is a simple question – what a property owner can do with his or her land to maximize the use of their land,” he said.

City Planner Heather Shank said after the tabling that the city was willing to take another look at the 25-acre cap. She also said the city was intentional in suggesting the changes it brought forward.

“We don’t zone for one property owner, we zone for the whole community,” she said.

(Caitlin A ndrews can be reached at 369-3309, candrews@cmonitor.com or on Twitter at @ActualCAndrews.)

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