The Capital City may soon have one of the more unique solar ordinances in the state.

After months of talk, revision and a lengthy public hearing last month, the planning board has recommended changes to its zoning ordinances regarding solar development. Those recommendations will soon go before the city council.

There are three key parts of the amendments. One aspect would make solar a principal use in all districts except the immediate downtown area and the opportunity corridors district with a conditional use permit. They can be used as an accessory use for on-site consumption in all districts.

The city’s stance on how much “coverage” solar panels provide on a lot would be clarified. Readers might remember this being the sticking point in a variance request made last year by NextEra to bring a 54-acre solar farm to West Portsmouth Street, one of the many sections of the city zoned residential open (RO) space.

That zoning allows for only 10 percent of a lot to be covered by an impervious surface. When laid flat, NextEra’s solar panels would have covered almost three times as much space.

If the amendments pass, the city will take its typical lot coverage calculation out of the equation altogether.

According to a February report from Assistant City Planner Beth Fenstermacher, the city would use a solar land coverage calculation which utilizes the perimeter of the development instead of individual components. This would include the space between the panels.

The proposal isn’t completely unusual – the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services uses a similar method – but it may be a departure from how others are tackling the issue.

“While staff has not found another municipality that utilizes the same method of calculating solar land coverage, we feel that this method is the best way to provide predictability in what the city and property abutters can expect to see when the land is developed,” Fenstermacher writes.

The proposal would also set a hard cap at 25 acres for any development except in the industrial district. But that doesn’t mean a 25-acre lot could be completely covered by panels.

In the RO district, for example, a commercial solar project could cover only 40 percent of the lot; a community project could cover 50 percent. In all other allowed districts, solar could cover anywhere from 60 to 85 percent.

By doing so, “Staff hopes brownfield and building mount solar development will be incentivized over greenfield development,” Fenstermacher writes.

Not everyone agrees with the details. The city’s Energy and Environment Advisory Committee has asked that the city push the cap to 50 acres.

And the public seems divided on the issue, too. Public comment from last month’s meeting ranged all over: some wrote in saying solar panels are “beautiful” and that they “would not mind looking at them.”

That was, perhaps not surprisingly, in contrast to comments made by West Portsmouth Street residents, who were uniformly against NextEra’s 2018 proposal.

Susanne Smith Meyer, a member of the planning board, wrote a letter to the board expressing concerns about what kind of precedent allowing 25-acre solar projects could set for the city’s rural areas.

“What would prevent the deforestation of acres of property or taking valuable agricultural land out of production?” she wrote. “Is reducing the forest canopy a fair trade-off for blanketing acres with solar arrays?”

For Rebecca McWilliams, who is trying to bring a 13-acre solar farm to the back roads of Lewis Farm, the limits seemed at odds with the city’s goal to get all of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030.

“What are we trying to say as the Capital City? Are we or are we not pro renewable energy?” McWilliams asked Friday.

Madeline Muneau, the executive director of Clean Energy NH, called the 40 percent cap on RO district developments “exceedingly restrictive and just not congruent with reality” in a letter submitted to the planning board.

“Those spaces are just not covered by anything and can be managed for environmental or habitat benefits,” she wrote.

After a lengthy meeting Wednesday night, members of the planning board were frank about the idea that not everyone would love the amendments.

But as member Earl Pierce put it, municipalities “all over the state and country are doing this. It’s not going to go away,” he said Wednesday night, speaking about regulating solar.

Stakeholder meeting

Speaking of energy matters, the city will hold a second stakeholder meeting on its strategic plan to move toward total renewable energy.

The meeting will be Wednesday from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. in the city council chambers.

If you can’t make it but still want to comment, the city is taking online comments through its website.

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


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