Solar Energy: Not So Fast, Not So Easy

The American Planning Association has a great paper titled “Balancing Solar Energy Use with Potential Competing Interests.” Article I am always amused and humbled by issues that at first seem so simple that turn out to be very complex.

Saratoga Springs is currently considering revising its solar ordinance.  There will be a hearing tonight at 6:50 preceding the council meeting on the proposed ordinance.  Currently there is a restriction from “shading” an existing solar panel.  The existing ordinance is Supplemental Regulation 6.6.8:

Except as otherwise provided by this Chapter, no property owner may erect a structure or allow a tree or other flora to cast a shadow upon a solar collector greater than the shadow cast by a hypothetical wall six feet high located along the property line between 8:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time from September 21 to March 21.

The motivation for changing the ordinance was precipitated by the controversy that erupted between The Mouzon House (a local restaurant) and the city center.  The City Center is trying to build a parking garage.  The Mouzon House opposes the garage which would tower over their restaurant.  As it turns out, the Mouzon House has solar panels on its roof and the proposed garage with cast a shadow over its solar panels during certain hours during the winter that would violate the existing ordinance.

This conflict has exposed a basic planning problem with particularly important implications for the downtown.  Once a building has solar panels, it severely restricts what can be built on adjoining properties.  As one example, if the Catina Restaurant’s building had had solar panels, the building where the Northshire Bookstore is located could not have been built.

The proposed ordinance would exempt the core downtown from the existing ordinance.

Unfortunately, as the article referenced above points out, the problem is far broader and more complex.  There are a variety of goals that potentially are in conflict.  The article focuses on the potential conflict between historic preservation buildings and trees on the one hand, and solar on the other.

Just a few items to consider:

  1. To what extent do solar panels undermine the character of an historic building?
  2. How do we handle the problem of a tree in one yard growing to the point that it effects the solar panel in an adjoining yard?

Coming up with ordinances and the planning strategies that are their partners to pursue solar, trees, and historic buildings is no easy task.

It is made all the more difficult when a bitter conflict like the one between the Mouzon House and the City Center produces angry, partisan attacks.

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