GV struggles with policy for ground mounted solar panels – Part I - The Villager

2022-09-16 22:22:39 By : Mr. David Gong


The Greenwood Village City Council has been trying without success for more than six months to agree on a policy for regulating ground-mounted and pole-mounted solar panel arrays in the city. GV does not limit roof-mounted solar panels in any way. Until recently, it had permitted ground and pole-mounted solar arrays under the rules for accessory structures in the zoning code. Accessory structures are generally required to take up no more than 30 percent of a rear yard or side yard and be set back at least five feet from the property line (more on larger lots). The zoning code does not require accessory structures to be screened from neighbors’ views.

The issue first arose back on January 4 at a city council study session when Councilmember Dave Bullock reported that, “some people in (GV) district one sent me a letter, along with (a) picture… expressing the concern that their next-door neighbors were starting to build large solar panels…” Bullock subsequently found out that the solar array in question had been constructed with a properly-approved city permit to do so. Derek Holcomb, GV community development director, told the city council at the January 4 meeting that ground-mounted solar panel arrays on a 2 ½-acre property are allowed to cover up to 900 square feet per acre. 

Councilmembers Donna Johnston and Tom Dougherty suggested that ground and pole-mounted solar arrays should perhaps not be treated as regular accessory structures. Dougherty, who is a highly experienced private attorney for utility and energy clients, expressed appreciation to Bullock for beginning the conversation on the subject, adding, “I think we are all familiar with the state’s policy and regulatory push to expand the use of clean energy. It is becoming increasingly affordable for homeowners to do so either to power their home or in conjunction with electric vehicles which are becoming more affordable and more popular.” 

Asked by Dougherty to address Colorado statutes that apply to solar installations, GV City Attorney Tonya Haas-Davidson said, “Homeowner associations and other private land use covenants that effectively prohibit or restrict the installation or use of renewable energy generation are void under state law,” but, she noted, the statute does not bind cities from imposing restrictions on renewable energy installations, including ground and pole-mounted solar arrays.

Although the city council consistently voiced support for solar energy Bullock pointed out, “The reason I brought this to the attention of council is that…this  is not something I’d want to sit on my back porch and look at on a neighboring property.” In response to a question, Holcomb stated that there were two separate arrays of solar panels on the property in question that together totaled 1,352 square feet, well under what was allowed under the accessory structure rule.

It was four months later on May 3 when the council discussed the subject again. At that meeting, Councilmember Bullock announced that he was flatly opposed to allowing any ground mounted solar panels in Greenwood Village.

Holcomb noted that, “900 square feet per acre on a 2 ½-acre lot is less than the size of a standard tennis court,” and “we also have lots of those” in GV.

Dougherty said, “Under state statute and Xcel’s rules, then you’re allowed to have distributed generation, which this (solar panels) would include, up to 120 percent of what your average annual demand is.” He also made the point that, “I’m reluctant to completely ban these,” suggesting instead that the city require that they be screened from neighbors. 

On May 17, the council agenda included an ordinance that would require that ground mounted solar arrays in GV would “produce no more than 120 percent of the electrical energy needs of the principal residential use of the lot, be no taller than six feet, be reasonably screened from the view of neighboring properties, comply with accessory structure setbacks…and maximum ground coverage restrictions.”

Mayor Pro Tem Kerber objected to allowing solar arrays the size of other accessory structures on large lots because he said that he did not believe they could be reasonably screened. Councilmember Ingebretsen suggested Holcomb come up with a smaller maximum area for solar arrays for larger lots than was permitted for accessory structures generally.

On June 7, city staff reported to the council that it had “performed an analysis of average house sizes in each residential zone district (of GV), along with the square footage of solar panels needed to meet the average house size’s total energy needs…” 

Staff recommended that for all lots in GV under one acre, including the R0.05-acre and R0.1-acre districts, the allowed area for ground-mounted solar panels be 450 square feet per acre. For lots one acre or larger, up to 2.5 acres, the maximum area allowed for solar arrays would be 450 square feet total, instead of the current 900 square feet per acre. A new ordinance on the agenda for that evening to regulate solar arrays in GV included those numbers, which were as much as 80 percent smaller than those allowed previously under the accessory structure rules.

Holcomb described the process that staff undertook as one where they looked at random addresses in GV to get an idea of the size of houses and how many solar panels would be needed to provide 100 percent of energy needs via a ground-mounted installation. Then they decided how many solar panels could go on a typical roof and deducted that to determine “what is a reasonable amount of ground-mounted panels to offset to achieve 100 percent solar, (including roof panels), and that is how we came up with the formula that was presented tonight.” 

He conceded that, “It does make it difficult on a smaller lot…but the rationale behind that was, it’s difficult to put in any accessory structure of size on a small lot due to the currently codified setbacks.” On a large lot there would be more opportunity to put solar panels on a roof. Holcomb concluded, “We felt that that struck the right balance between providing some off-load on a roof installation and trying to achieve what council was telling us from their gut at the last meeting, which was, what is the right amount, even if screened? That is where this number came from.”

William Clay, who owns a solar panel company in Centennial, testified on behalf of the Colorado Solar and Storage Association (COSSA). He noted that the demand for solar energy is increasing and its cost is dropping. Clay pointed out that ground-mounted solar is typically sought by homeowners whose roof is unsuitable for it. 

Clay then testified that the limitations in the proposed ordinance were “ambiguous, unclear, inconsistent with state law, Public Utility Commission regulations and utility policies.” He said that electricity usage is correlated with home size, not lot size. Clay went on to point out that an analysis of the proposed size limits in the ordinance that the council was about to consider for a ground mounted solar array on a quarter-acre lot would produce 20 to 40 percent of a typical home’s energy needs. On a half-acre lot, the proposed size limits would result in solar energy sufficient to produce 30 to 50 percent of a typical home’s energy needs, thus, he said, “It becomes impractical to put a ground mount or pole-mount system on a lot that’s less than one-half acre in Greenwood Village.” Clay concluded that, “the ordinance, the way it’s written, disproportionately restricts solar energy production for the smaller lots in Greenwood Village,” later adding, “We are here to help. We are able to answer any questions and assist in any way necessary.”

After agreeing that the aesthetic impact of solar panels was a legitimate concern of the city council, Dougherty said that he did not think that the proposed ordinance was “the right solution to that problem,” adding that he believed it was “contrary to the energy policy of the State of Colorado and the direction that our state and our residents are going in terms of energy self-sufficiency, in terms of a desire for more clean energy.” He noted that Mr. Clay’s testimony illustrated “the conflict between attempting to solve the aesthetic concern with a one-size-fits-all solution, and that it is directly inconsistent with the state’s energy policy, which is to try to give people the opportunity…to provide at least their amount of electricity that they would consume in their home and to do that whether it’s a matter of self-sufficiency, a matter of personal choice in response to climate change, or just plain old economics…” Dougherty noted that the configuration of his own roof and the orientation of his home would preclude roof-mounted solar panels and “this ordinance would effectively make it impracticable for someone like me to pursue ground-mounted solar.”

Dougherty recommended tabling the ordinance that was on the agenda to give city staff an opportunity to work with COSSA to find a better solution for GV residents that balanced aesthetics with residents’ reasonable desires and needs for solar energy.

Councilmember Barnacle agreed. Mayor Pro Tem Kerber did not. He said, “I support adoption of the ordinance (as proposed),” adding, “This is a classic case of varying interests…I view ground-mounted solar as an industrial plant, like the Chinese when they had glass furnaces in their back yards and they did pig iron, which in my view is not consistent with Greenwood Village and how our people like to live.” Kerber pointed out that, “This is not a proposal to ban ground-mounted solar entirely. Now, the proponents of ground-mounted solar say, “It’s not enough.” Their interests are more of having ground-mounted solar in the interests of that and have less of an interest in aesthetics. It looks good to them. It’s in accordance with state policy. I disagree with state policy on solar. It’s an inefficient energy source. It creates damage to the environment when you’re mining for materials for batteries for electric uses…” 

The council eventually adopted Dougherty’s recommendation and voted to table the proposed ordinance 6 to 2, with Kerber and Johnston providing the no votes. Then they passed an emergency ordinance to place a moratorium on permits for all ground and polar-mounted solar arrays until September 13 while they continued to try to decide on a policy.

Next week:  The debate continues…