County mandates neighbor notification for solar panels

by Andrew Travers, Aspen Daily News Staff Writer

Homeowners who wish to instal solar panels of more than 200 square feet must notify their neighbors and be subject to public hearings, Pitkin County commissioners decided Tuesday.

The county commissioners voted unanimously Wednesday to adopt the new regulations, over objections from renewable energy industry representatives and the county’s own Community Office for Resource Efficiency (CORE).

The county has been refining the solar regulations for more than a year. Wednesday’s vote added them to the county land use code.

The issue arose after complaints from an Old Snowmass family about the blinding glare a neighboring 500-square-foot solar array shot into their home. The issue came to the attention of the Pitkin County Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z).

Writing the rules proved a challenge for a county board that’s committed to encouraging renewable energy use and lowering the local carbon footprint, but also wants to preserve rural character.

“We have the tricky task of balancing competing goals,” commission chair Rachel Richards said.

CORE’s Amelia Potvin argued that the 200-square-foot limit may discourage homeowners from installing solar energy.

Out of the 22 local homes that were awarded grants for solar installations from the Renewable Energy Mitigation Program (REMP) last year, Potvin said, all but three of the arrays were larger than 200 square feet.

“It would create an undue hassle for both the property owner and the installer,” she told the board.

Local company Aspen Solar echoed that argument in a letter to the board, requesting the county raise the threshold for public notices and review to 400 square feet.

The county’s planning staff had originally recommended a threshold of 400 feet to require public notice, but the commissioners reduced it in the hopes of giving neighbors ample opportunity to raise concerns about glare and visual impacts.

Neighbors will be allowed 30 days after notification to protest solar installations to the county. The county’s planning board would then review the solar proposal and decide if it’s appropriate. Either side could appeal the P&Z’s decision to county commissioners.

A 10-by-20-foot solar array, the commissioners argued, is too big of a neighborhood addition to come without special notice.

“That has the potential to change the character of a neighborhood,” Commissioner Michael Owsley said.

County planner Mike Kraemer told the board the 200-square-foot limit would translate into costs for the community development department.

“We will be incurring losses with this public notice and review,” he said. The staff time to administer public notices, he said, would always exceed the $500 maximum fee the county can charge, under state law, for a residential solar review.

Panels mounted on the ground instead of roofs will trigger a special review if they are more than 12 feet high, under the rules. Solar installers unsuccessfully lobbied the board to raise that limit, arguing 12 feet was too restrictive.

Rick Heede, a Snowmass-based renewable energy consultant, spoke in favor of the new rules.

“The board has it essentially right,” he said. “I think you’ve done a good job.”

The regulations also require using a non-reflective surface to cut down glare that could shine into neighboring homes. That measure essentially outlaws shiny bare aluminum supports for panels. The glare question proved difficult, because the county found no way to measure it.

The code is believed to be the first in the nation to address glare from solar panels. According to the American Planning Association, other glare codes have been drafted but not yet adopted.

Glare will be dealt with as a “general nuisance” in the code, much like noise.

Commissioner Richards compared the issue of glare and visual impacts of solar installations to regulating local home construction.

“The same way you can’t make a 5,750- or 8,000- or 10,000-square-foot home invisible to a neighborhood, there will be some impacts. ... It is our job to minimize those,” she said.

Commissioner George Newman added that the public notice and hearing process will avoid post-installation neighbor conflicts.

Pitkin County assistant planning director Lance Clarke agreed: “The opportunity will come to diffuse a lot of potential problems.”