Zoning case highlights a debate on solar panels: Ugly or admirable?

  • A stake in the ground in front of the Unitarian Universalist Church on Pleasant Street in Concord shows of the area where the church’s new solar array will soon be placed. A church representative estimated that the panels could be installed by next month, depending on the weather. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • A rendering shows what the solar array in front of the Unitarian Universalist Church on Pleasant Street in Concord could look like. Not pictured is the row of greenery that will be planted in front of the panels, as mandated by the zoning board. Courtesy

Monitor staff
Published: 2/7/2017 11:46:19 PM

In Trudy Mott-Smith’s opinion, solar panels are beautiful things. She’s proud of the array that will soon sprout up in front of her church on Pleasant Street. It’s a symbol of sustainability and a suggestion that others aspire to do the same, she said.

But as the project manager for the Unitarian Universalist Church’s bid to install two rows of 50 panels each in its front yard, Mott-Smith learned that not everyone shares in her belief.

The city’s zoning board members, in particular, approved her project only when the church agreed to shield the 5-foot-3-inch panels from the road using shrubbery.

“They thought it was ugly,” she said. “Their word for that is ‘not in keeping with the neighborhood.’ ”

So the panels will be installed – perhaps as soon as next month – and then they’ll be hidden behind junipers, rhododendrons and arborvitae.

“Where there used to be a church – which is familiar to everyone who uses Pleasant Street – there’s going to be a sudden wall of green. ... We were not what you would call extremely happy” with the condition, she said.

And although her church received the approvals it needed, Mott-Smith said she’s not done thinking about Concord’s solar ordinance – or, rather, the lack thereof.

She hopes to take the positive references to renewable energy in the city’s master plan and put them into practice with policies that make life easier for residents who want to install ground-mounted solar arrays.

Learning that there seemed to be no such effort formally under way, the 81-year-old Mott-Smith said: “When I get done, there will be someone working on it.”

Zoning variances

It was March of last year when the church’s congregation approved construction of the solar project, which is supposed save about $5,000 a year in energy costs. At the time, Mott-Smith figured the panels would be online by the end of the year.

But the church’s flat roof is too weak to bear the panels’ weight, and the memorial garden out back couldn’t be torn up. That left only the front yard available, which presented a zoning hurdle for the church to overcome. It was first heard in August and conditionally approved in October.

Craig Walker, the city’s zoning administrator, explained that any “accessory structure” in the front yard – be it a shed, garage or solar array – would have triggered the zoning board hearings that the church underwent.

“It was nothing specific to a solar array,” he said. “The board in that case was concerned with the aesthetics of having an accessory structure in the front yard. That Pleasant Street corridor is an extremely important aesthetic entrance to the city.”

Mott-Smith pointed to the city’s master plan, saying that it uses words like “encourage,” “promote” and “maximize” in conjunction with renewable energy and conservation. Far from hiding solar panels, she said, “You should get a brownie point if the reason you need a variance relates closely to sustainable energy.”

But Walker noted that the ordinance is supposed to maintain “content neutrality” while accomplishing the goals of the master plan.

“To state that one type of structure in general has different privileges than other types of structures, it becomes inconsistent and it becomes difficult to enforce,” he said.

Breaking ground

In the absence of any solar-specific ordinance, the people in charge of the approvals process are left to make a weighty decision themselves, said Richard Uchida, a real estate attorney who represented the church.

“The zoning board felt it needed to sort of make it up as it went and not set any precedent, while Concord puts together a solar panel ordinance,” Uchida said.

“When you’re doing something for the very first time, and you’re trying to ensure you do something in such a way that you don’t set precedent for somebody else that comes along, I think it naturally gets slowed down,” he added.

Mott-Smith wouldn’t say exactly how much the church spent in legal fees, but she noted the total project cost landed at about $130,000, adding, “We have a lot of anxiety in the finance department.”

There are relatively few ground-mounted solar arrays in Concord, but another one approved by the zoning board in 2015 was subsequently appealed to the Merrimack County Superior Court by neighbors who said the variance negatively affected their property’s value.

Mott-Smith said she’d thought a group began working after that ordeal to draft a solar ordinance, but Walker and City Councilor Rob Werner, who is state director of an environmental conservation group, said they didn’t know of any such group that’s formally established.

Werner said the issue is something that the city’s Energy and Environment Advisory Committee, which he chairs, would be open to considering.

“It’s certainly worth a discussion,” he said.

Mott-Smith said she has some ideas of how the city could better support solar developments, and she plans to get involved now that she no longer has any cases pending before the zoning or planning boards. She realizes it’ll take some persuasion if everyone’s going to agree with her opinion about the beauty of solar panels.

It may be a question worth answering, however. Uchida predicted that “we’re going to see more and more” cases mirroring the church’s.

“There are people who think that solar panels exposed to the public are beautiful and a show of the way a property owner is thrusting himself or herself into the 21st century, and they’re very proud of that,” he said.

He added: “And there are other people who find these panels ugly . . . and want them hidden. I think balancing those two views is going to be an interesting challenge.”

(Nick Reid can be reached at 369-3325, nreid@cmonitor.com or on Twitter at

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