WESTERLY — Members of the Town Council conducted their first review of proposed solar power regulations on Monday and decided to submit questions to the town staff for further consideration next month. The rules are envisioned as eventually becoming part of the town's zoning ordinance.
On Monday the council received a general overview of the regulations from Town Planner Rui Almeida and the town's planning and zoning lawyer, Nancy Letendre. The Department of Development Services has been working on the regulations for about one year. The proposed rules have been endorsed by the Planning Board and zoning officials.
Almeida said town staff members gathered input from local officials, reviewed solar ordinances in other towns, and met with solar developers. Letendre said state officials were also consulted.
Currently there are very few references to solar power in the zoning regulations. Adoption of solar regulations, Almeida said, would "protect our citizens and architecture and heritage" while assisting "businesses and new investments that are knocking on our doors all the time ... but we don't have the means to get them there."
Because there are essentially no solar regulations now, Almeida said, companies interested in developing projects in Westerly are being turned away. A solar project under development for White Rock Road, involving the town and a private developer, is moving forward because of the town's involvement. Municipalities are exempt from local zoning regulations.
Letendre said the proposed regulations would establish a system of review as well as delineate where projects are allowed, in a manner similar to the way that regulations were developed for cellphone towers.
As proposed, small solar systems would be allowed as an accessory use throughout the town. Larger systems that are considered a primary or principal use of a specific property would be limited mostly to the town's industrial zone and would require issuance of a special permit by the Zoning Board of Review. That process would require a public hearing. All solar projects, both residential and commercial, would require development plan review. Roof-mounted solar power equipment would be excluded from the calculation of building height.
The council will have to decide whether to accept the recommended special use permit approach or to use another approach that is allowed under state law, in which municipalities establish certain requirements and preferences that can be waived by the local zoning board.
"We don't want to foreclose legitimate and reasonable opportunities for solar to come to Westerly but we do want to limit, for example, how your farms are developed," Letendre said.
Almeida said the proposed regulations were conservative. "We took great pains to make sure that the character and heritage of our town was preserved ... especially our historic districts and national register properties and residential properties," Almeida said.
Councilor William Aiello suggested changing the wording of a regulation pertaining to rooftop solar systems. Under the proposed regulation, "panels and devices may be set on a pitch and elevated, if not visible from public streets." Aiello said the clause was too limiting because most systems would be visible from public streets. "Why are we trying to hide them?" he asked.
Almeida explained that the regulation was intended to preserve the character of specific neighborhoods. As an example, he said visible roof-mounted systems on flat roof structures downtown would detract from the aesthetics of the area.
Councilor Karen Cioffi said she favored unambiguous language. "I've been in some communities that are not as specific as this. They're terrible eyesores ... we have to be very specific to protect our landscape," she said.
Councilor Sharon Ahern noted that neighboring towns have struggled recently with proposed solar projects and asked that the proposed regulations be reviewed by the state Office of Energy Resources, which is developing model solar ordinances for use by municipalities.
"I would really like someone who is a solar person to come and say, 'I like this or this is a potential pitfall,' or to say 'This is perfect,' but at this point I don't think any one of us has that very discrete area of expertise," Ahern said.
Members of the council agreed to send their questions to the Department of Development Services and are expected to continue their review of the proposed regulations at a meeting scheduled for Feb. 25.