Energy

Portsmouth, Like Rhode Island, Grapples with Solar Sprawl

A new solar array under construction on West Main Road in Portsmouth didn’t have to adhere to local siting rules because it sits on Navy-owned land. (Joanna Detz/ecoRI News)

PORTSMOUTH, R.I. — A lengthy hearing to change the town’s new solar ordinance ended in limbo, as the struggle to address solar sprawl in Rhode Island persists.

The ordinance was adopted in May after meetings were delayed and rescheduled by the coronavirus public-health crisis. There was little public input and awareness about the proceedings, which, according to a residents’ group, was the result of improperly advertised hearings.

Portsmouth Residents for Responsible Solar sees the oversight as an opportunity to make the town’s solar rules more respectful of homeowners and fend off a wave of ground-mounted solar development. The ordinance, the group contends, is too vague and lacks provisions that notify neighbors of proposed developments. It says setbacks from property lines are too narrow, density is undefined, and environmental-impact controls aren’t addressed.

The ordinance was written by local attorney Cort Chappell on behalf of commercial solar developers. At the Nov. 23 Town Council meeting, Chappell defended the rules, saying they allow for public feedback and require the same permits needed for other forms of construction.

Medium and large ground-mounted solar arrays have more stringent criteria than they do in other communities, he claimed, such as a 12-foot height limit.

“That’s a more conservative view than many of the ordinances that we looked at,” Chappell said.

The setback from the property line must be 50 feet on all sides, according to Chappell’s ordinance. Thirty feet must be vegetated if the project abuts a residential neighbor, and neighbors have a say in the type of plantings used in the buffer.

Chappell said environmental issues such as stormwater runoff, drainage, lot coverage, and density are addressed through the Planning Board process. He noted that a land surveyor must review any issues with wetlands, historic cemeteries, and boundaries. Approvals are required from the Fire Department for an emergency response plan. A vegetation plan is also required, and funds must be set aside to decommission arrays.

Solar arrays, he claimed, preserve land from development for 25 years and don’t create noise or traffic.

David Croston of Portsmouth Residents for Responsible Solar said having someone like Chappell drafting an ordinance is a conflict of interest given his connections to solar developers that intend to build in Portsmouth.

“We believe it’s heavily weighted to certain interests in town,” he said.

Croston and his group of concerned residents worry that the ordinance will revive the 2.8-acre Seabury Apartments project on Jepson Road and a 9-acre array on West Main Road.

Scott Millar of Grow Smart Rhode Island said Portsmouth is like other municipalities across the state having to revise their ordinances multiple times to adapt to the expansion of renewable energy.

The Portsmouth ordinance lacks specific standards, he said. Without them, the planning and zoning boards will be inundated with requests to resolve disagreements, especially from developers.

“Some of those can be very difficult to hold up in court if they are not backed up by explicit standards in the ordinance,” Millar said.

He noted that the town’s ordinance allows large solar arrays in residential areas as a special use with no limits on size or lot coverage.

“In my opinion, this is going to encourage some very large solar energy system to be proposed in Portsmouth,” Millar said.

He suggested that the town adopt lot coverage requirements, consider size limits for ground-mounted solar arrays, and increase the setback and screening requirements. He said the town could also choose to restrict solar development in certain places and encourage it in others, such as old landfills and gravel banks.

University of Rhode Island economist Corey Lang testified about his recent study that found residential properties in Rhode Island and Massachusetts situated near utility-scale solar arrays losing property value. Both states have seen “a sudden boom” in large solar projects, according to the study, because of mandated purchases of renewable power to meet renewable-energy portfolio standards.

Homes near large arrays dropped 1.7 percent in value, according to Lang’s research. Houses within a tenth of a mile of a solar facility 1 megawatt in capacity or larger lost 7 percent. The study didn’t take into account the size of buffers.

Suburban homes, he noted, showed the greatest loss in value.

Council member Daniela Abbott said residents are more aware of the visual impact of ground-mounted solar arrays after seeing construction of an installation on Navy property on West Main Road. Setbacks and buffers are hardly noticeable. As a Navy project it didn’t have to adhere to local siting rules.

“I think what happened on West Main Road is a shame. It’s very unfortunate. It’s hideous,” Abbott said.

Most residents, she said, don’t have time to follow solar projects as they are reviewed by the planning and zoning boards.

“I would prefer to have more safety measures in the ordinance to protect the residents of Portsmouth and to protect the quality of life and the look and feel we want in Portsmouth,” Abbott said.

Resident Bruce Fay noted that setbacks should be at least 100 feet. He also said the new ordinance is incomplete and should benefit the good of the town.

“Not the good of any developers. None of that nonsense, but the good of the the town,” Fay said.

After nearly three hours of discussion, the Town Council agreed to table a vote on amending the ordinance until its Dec. 14 meeting. If a review is approved, the Planning Board would consider changes and send recommendation back to the council for hearings and a vote.

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  1. This objectionable "solar sprawl" appears to be caused, or at least aided, by the restrictive policies of the electric utilities. National Grid, at least, limits the amount of roof area a homeowner can cover with solar panels so that these produce only about that home’s monthly consumption of electricity, in a lopsided deal where the utility receives the excess kWh produced during the daylight hours and pays 2.7 cents for each, to then resell the same juice to that homeowner for up to ten times as much money. If they allowed homeowners to use the entire area of their south-facing roofs, the so gained area would make much of that property-value-reducing solar sprawl unnecessary. And if the utility paid those homeowners the same 5.7 cents per kWh it pays to a "solar sprawl" installation, those homeowners would have an incentive to put up as many panels as their roof will carry. Moreover, a roof covered only partly with solar panels looks like a patch whereas covering that entire roof would look much better and rather add to the property values in its neighborhood. The "solar sprawl" described in this article is merely due to the misguided policies of the utilities who control the market for electricity and exploit it to their advantage, without considering the benefits to the community from less restrictions about what solar panels they allow on homes.

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