Hot Times For The City Solar Amendment

I am in favor of the solar amendment passed by the City Council on Tuesday night.

For those of you not familiar with the original ordinance:

6.4.8 SOLAR ACCESS

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.

This seems rather complicated because the shadow is literally a moving virtual shadow depending upon what date and what time you choose.  There is, however, software designed to figure this out. (Shadow Calculator) This is a link to a pretty neat web site that lets you hone in on your actual property using Google Maps and create a virtual structure on your property and then check out its shadow on different days and times.

Basically the ordinance cited above is meant to insure that nothing, including trees, on one property  adversely affects solar panels on any neighboring property.

The amendment to the ordinance which was adopted excluded the downtown from this requirement.

In brief, given the wide variety in heights of downtown buildings along with the goal as set out in our Comprehensive Plan to concentrate growth in the core, the original language creates significant potential conflicts between property owners.  Had the Cantina on Broadway, for instance, erected a solar panel on its roof, the building housing Northshire Books could not have been built under this ordinance. The scope of these problems is clearly very different from areas outside the core where building height and the close proximity of other structures are very different.

Northampton, Massachusetts is a city similar to ours in many ways and has won an award for being a highly rated sustainable community (Northhampton Link).  It considered adopting a solar panel ordinance  a number of years ago but determined that in light of their goal of concentrating development downtown such an ordinance would be a significant hindrance.

I think it is also important to keep the scope of what is contemplated here in perspective.  The downtown area affected is quite modest in size.

I share my Sustainable Saratoga friends’ desire to vigorously press  for green energy in light of the grave danger of global warming.  We differ about the significance of the impact of this ordinance change, however.  How seriously does excluding the downtown threaten our commitment as a community to reducing greenhouse gases?  To what extent does insisting that the city core must have an ordinance on solar panels make sense?  Is this an issue of symbolism or an issue of critical substance deserving the heat that this debate has generated?  Are there existing and emerging sustainable technologies that will better suit the downtown now and in the future?

A major concern is that for many of the players in this conflict, the question of solar panels is a stalking horse for opposition to the proposed City Center Garage.  While changing the ordinance removes an obstacle for the City Center to build its garage, mixing the two issues does a disservice to both.

What remains to be examined and what may have a broader impact is the potential conflict between solar panels and not only buildings but trees in the remaining areas of the city still covered by this solar ordinance. Sustainable Saratoga has launched an important tree planting initiative along with their support for solarizing Saratoga, and the danger is that these two worthy goals may come into conflict with one another as solar panels are installed throughout the city and trees are planted and grow.  What happens, for instance, if a panel placed on a house is shaded by a neighbor’s tree? Under the ordinance as written the tree must come down. Clearly the way ahead for a sustainable Saratoga must involve a holistic look at all aspects of what makes for a sustainable city. For an interesting discussion of this and the issue of solar panels and historic preservation as well I refer you to the article cited in an earlier post.

Which brings us to the question of why not wait and review the ordinance as a whole as it affects the entire city.  To my mind, the process for developing an ordinance for the entire city is going to be arduous.  Aside from the problem of the ordinance itself, the city would be imposing new standards for all its property owners.  This is the kind of process that will require patience, diplomacy, and commitment.  Anyone who has watched our City Council will know just how monumental a task this could end up being.  I know that many of the readers of this blog will differ with me, but waving the solar ordinance requirement for downtown, as argued earlier, was both simple and needed.

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