Pitkin County works on rules in advance of an expected solar surge
ASPEN – Pitkin County is overhauling its rules on erecting solar panels just in time to deal with an anticipated surge of investment in renewable energy.
The county’s planning commission voted 4-1 earlier this month to boost the height limit from 10 to 16 feet for free-standing solar collectors. The county commissioners will ponder the issue Dec. 2.
The proposed change has got it supporters and detractors, according to Mike Kraemer, the county planner handling the amendment. Renewable energy proponents contend the 10-foot height limit was too low because snow could accumulate around the bottom of solar panels and reduce their efficiency.
But taller, free-standing solar arrays are a lightning rod for critics who claim they intrude on the views of neighboring property owners. “Staff receives a fair amount of public comment concerning solar collectors and their visual impact,” Kraemer wrote in a memo to the planning commission.
Most people don’t seem to mind the installation of solar electric and solar thermal panels on building roofs anymore. They’re old hat and they are unobtrusive.
But in some cases it works better to have free-standing solar arrays detached from a house or business. Those systems meet with more resistance. “Some people feel it has an industrial look,” Kraemer said.
One fight over a free-standing system is brewing in the Little Elk Creek subdivision in Old Snowmass. On the same night that county planners recommended a higher height limit, homeowner Tim Lindholm sought a variance from the 10-foot limit from the county board of adjustments. The board granted the variance over the objections of three of his neighbors.
Colorado law is also on the side of individuals in cases of disputes with homeowners’ associations. The associations are prohibited from rejecting solar energy installations, and they cannot require alterations that add significantly to the cost of a proposed system. However, veteran solar installers report numerous problems with clients getting hassled so much by homeowners’ associations that they give up the fight. It’s tough for most people to alienate their neighbors.
Lindholm said he’s been worn down by a fight with some neighbors that has dragged on for months. He is passionate about redeveloping his property on the edge of Little Elk Creek in a sustainable way that minimizes his reliance on power from fossil fuels.
“I don’t want to heat my house with coal,” he said.
His new house will include solar thermal panels on the roof to heat water for domestic use and heating the house. He plans to build a 10-kilowatt solar photovoltaic system to supply power for his house, studio and apartment. The system will consist of four poles and 12 panels. Each pole will have an array 10.5 feet tall and 15.5 feet wide.
Lindholm said he changed the proposed site of his solar PV system a couple of times to address neighbors’ concerns. But addressing one concern raises another. “It’s been impossible to please everybody,” he said.
At times, the neighborly disagreement has boiled to a full-fledged dispute. He feels there is a bit of hypocrisy involved in the whole debate over solar power.
“Everybody says, ‘We support your green intentions, but …,'” he tailed off. The “but” is they don’t support renewable energy when it interferes with their views or they perceive it could affect their property values, he said.
Alan Richman, a planning consultant who represents Lindholm and a former planning director for Pitkin County and the city of Aspen, said he is confident the county will update its land-use code to solve technical issues impeding the installation of solar energy projects.
“They’re not using standards to stop folks,” he said.
But he fears society, even in the usually progressive Roaring Fork Valley, isn’t ready to move past the battles over aesthetics even though renewable energy is clearly the wave of the future.
“The point is not is it pretty or ugly, but that’s what we ought to be doing,” Richman said. “People have to accommodate this.”
Pitkin County voters clearly support renewable energy and energy efficiency. A proposal to create a “smart energy district” won by a landslide in the Nov. 3 election. Pitkin County now has the ability to issue up to $7 million in bonds. That will create a pool of money that will be available in low-interest loans to homeowners and business operators for renewable energy and energy efficiency projects. The program is voluntary, and loans get paid back through an increase in property taxes for the participants.
The program, which will start funding projects in 2010, is expected to be popular with homeowners.