standing Westerly Town Hall

WESTERLY — The Town Council voted 6-1 Monday to adopt the town’s first solar power ordinance.

The new ordinance will regulate both residential systems and larger solar farms intended to produce electricity for public and private utility providers, industries and businesses.

Councilor Brian McCuin voted against the ordinance, saying he disagreed with having the Architectural Review Board and municipal staff make judgments on whether residential systems meet subjective standards for color and neighborhood continuity.

The council’s vote follows several months of work on the ordinance by staff in the municipal Department of Development Services. A draft version of the ordinance was first presented to the Town Council in May. The ordinance was also reviewed and approved by the Planning Board.

The ordinance allows solar systems as an accessory use to the primary use of a property in all of the town’s zoning districts. The accessory-use classification pertains to residential systems or to businesses owners and commercial property owners who use solar power to reduce or eliminate their electricity costs.

By allowing solar systems on properties that are currently grandfathered to allow commercial and industrial uses in zones where those activities would otherwise not be allowed, the town may, through the ordinance, be able to bring such properties closer to compliance with current zoning, said Zoning Officer Nathan Reichert.

For instance, Reichert said several properties in the town are grandfathered to allow gravel operations in close proximity to residential neighborhoods.

“If you can trade that non-conforming use and be allowed, as a primary use, a solar installation but when you put in that solar you agree that you give up the right to the gravel ... it’s a way for us to unwind non-conforming uses that are in residential zones. We have several of those throughout town,” Reichert said.

Under the ordinance, all solar energy systems except for those that are accessory to single-family or two-family residences will require development-plan review by the Planning Board. Accessory uses for installations excluding one- or two-family residences may be permitted administratively by the zoning official if less than 1,000 square feet or if they will produce less than less than 25 kilowatts of power.

However, solar installations proposed within historic districts, on a historic property, or on any properties, or structures registered, or proposed to be registered in a historic district must be forwarded to the Architectural Review Board for an advisory opinion and to the Planning Board for development-plan approval. On applications requiring a variance or special-use permit, development-plan review will be advisory to the Zoning Board of Review.

Large-scale commercial systems planned for the LDR 40, RR60, General Industrial and Light Industrial zones would require issuance of a special-use permit by the Zoning Board of Review.

Gov. Gina Raimondo has set a target of 1,000 megawatts of renewable energy in the state by 2020. The ordinance is expected to provide guidelines for commercial developers who have approached the town with ideas for projects only to be turned away because the town did not previously have an ordinance for solar projects.

McCuin said the ordinance was too restrictive and relied too heavily on the subjective judgment of town staff to determine the proper color and look of solar panels. But Town Planer Rui Almeida said town staff are obligated to consider the architecture of specific neighborhoods, particularly in historic districts.

Recent work on the ordinance was closely watched by Burkley Weilburg, a salesman with Sun Nerds, a Providence-based solar energy system broker, and Jon Morrone of Trusted Solar, a Vermont-based solar developer.

After the meeting, Weilburg said he was pleased town staff adjusted the ordinance based on input the two companies provided, but said the ordinance might be an impediment for homeowners.

“I agree with Councilor McCuin. It’s irrelevant to make a design choice. Solar panels are flat and black,” Weilburg said.

Weilburg said he had worked on about 35 solar projects in the town during the past 18 months.

As electrical rates charged by National Grid continue to increase, Morrone said the Town Council should do all it can to ensure low- and moderate-income property owners and residents have a means to reduce their energy costs.

Councilors Christopher Duhamel, Suzanne Giorno, William Aiello, Karen Cioffi, Caswell Cooke Jr. and Sharon Ahern voted in favor of the ordinance, which takes effect immediately.

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