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Solar ordinance seeks to balance green goals, conservatism in Lincoln

January 11, 2018
LINCOLN—A newly proposed ordinance aims for a balance between providing opportunities for clean energy and protecting the appearance and experience of life in Lincoln.

The new ordinance aims to make space for solar facilities, within the bounds of Lincoln's aesthetic and physical limits. More than any other north country town Lincoln faces an acute lack of space, and is hemmed in on all sides by the White Mountain National Forest. Debates over how to develop the few remaining empty corners are common and lively.

The ordinance itself makes this balancing act clear:

"The Town of Lincoln intends to allow for the use of Solar Energy Systems in the community while maintaining Lincoln's scenic vistas and rural character, particularly as seen from public roads," the ordinance reads.

In particular, it seeks to safeguard the safety, attractiveness, and market value of neighboring parcels.

To that end, ordinance takes steps to limit the aesthetic impact of solar installations: panels are limited to twelve feet in height, transmission lines must be buried, and installations have to obey all regular setback rules. Rooftop units are exempt from the height and setbacks requirements to allow residents to mount panels on their homes wherever the house is located on the property. Landowners could also mount panels on auxiliary buildings.

The ordinance specifies that as much as feasible, panels be placed to minimize glare onto neighboring properties and roadways. Furthermore, it forbids advertising and decorations, but makes allowance for manufacturer's information, warnings, and other useful markings.

Both residential and non-residential solar systems would be permitted in any zoning district, while utility-scale systems are strongly discouraged. The ordinance also seeks to make solar systems used to Lincoln, and specifies that power should be consumed on-site, by the homeowner(s).

Under the rules, smaller units would have an easier time getting local approval. For individual homeowners and residential complexes, anything less than 25 kilowatts per unit would only require a land use authorization permit.

Between 25 kW and one megawatt, site plan review by the planning board would also be required, setting a higher standard.

Facilities of greater than one megawatt, such as currently proposed in Lisbon, would not be permitted. Developers would have to seek state permission, and even then, local site plan and land use authorizations would be required. Several multi-megawatt facilities are operating in Vermont, and it would seem unlikely that such a proposal could pass muster under the proposed ordinance, let along find sufficient land in space-strapped Lincoln.

The ordinance wisely looks to the future, and specifies that abandoned facilities and unused batteries must be properly removed in a timely fashion. If a facility was abandoned for more than 515 days, the town is empowered to seek its removal at the owner's expense. Deadbeat developers, beware!

By creating opportunities for solar power, while simultaneously discouraging the most harmful potential impacts, Lincoln is aiming to meet clean energy goals without sacrificing its character or appearance. By getting out in front of any potential proposals, it is also taking its planning future into its own hands. Liberty with reasonable limits, change with common sense: these are virtuous qualities for any public policy. For such an important cause as clean power, they are sublime.

Martin Lord Osman
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