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Wheatfield delays approval of solar panel law

Solar panels with glare

image courtesy: Morguefile Stock Images
Mia Summerson
December 20, 2016

WHEATFIELD — A spike in public interest over the past couple of weeks has caused the town board to delay voting on its proposed solar panel law.

After a sparsely attended public hearing held earlier this month, a public work session at Monday’s board meeting drew a much larger crowd. Drew Reilly, a consultant with Wendel who has been working closely with the town’s task force on the project, relayed a series of proposed changes that have been suggested since the hearing.

“There’s always two sides,” he said. “I think there have been a lot of great suggestions and there are also some decisions that the board has to make.” The majority of the proposed changes pertain to regulations such has how large solar systems can be and how residents or businesses in Wheatfield can go about installing one.

Reilly said most of the questions pertained to ground-mounted and utility grade systems. An example of one change to the law is, instead of prohibiting systems larger than a certain size, no sizes will be completely prohibited. However, once a system goes over a size limit, it will have to be granted site plan approval as opposed to simply obtaining a building permit.

Other proposed changes include eliminating minimum and maximum property size limits and also allowing utility grade system to be installed in rural-residential zones. There was also discussion about how far solar panel systems should be set back from adjoining property lines, which Reilly proposed should be equal to the regulations for any accessory structure.

“If I can put a garage five feet or 10 feet off the property line, why can’t I put a solar array?” Reilly asked. On the other hand, he reminded the town that the juxtaposition of a ground mounted solar panel to an adjacent property has already caused disputes among neighbors.

As it currently stands, Wheatfield only has “one line” of code on the books related to solar panel regulations, according to Wheatfield Supervisor Bob Cliffe. That law pertains to controlling “sky space,” or the ability of sunlight to reach a solar panel. Solar panels are not listed under allowed uses in the town’s code, effectively making them illegal.

Several residents and members of local environmental and energy groups in Monday’s audience praised the proposed law for encouraging the use of renewable resources. Chris Prinzi, of Solar Liberty, said he attended the meeting to show support for the law and also to thank the board for taking such care to distinguish between utility grade systems and smaller personal systems.

Diana Strablow, of the Sierra Club Niagara Group, also gave credit to the board for encouraging the use of solar energy but also for holding off on approval until all the details are ironed out. Cliffe said that now is the time that farmers are looking to sign contracts to have solar panels installed on their property next year and, while the he said he wants to make that possible, he said it’s “obviously more important to get it right than to get it now.”

“We’ve been working hard to promote renewable energy because of our concern about climate change,” Strablow said, addressing the board. “We really do appreciate you making that happen.”

Though some residents were happy to see the board making a move to allow solar panels to be used in the town, other residents had questions. Stuart Newman, for example, questioned the height limit of the panels.

While the board will take a few more weeks to consider the law itself, it did approve a resolution extending an existing moratorium on ground mounted solar panels for an additional three months to allow time for adjustments to be made. This prevents the installation of new ground mounted systems for the time being.

Another public hearing on the matter will be held at 7:15 p.m. Jan. 23 at town hall, 2800 Church Road. The Wheatfield Town Board will hold another hearing that night related to the submission of a grant application to the state Office of Community Renewal requesting support for the construction of a brewery and brew pub at 6929 Williams Road. That hearing will take place at 7 p.m.

A regular board meeting will follow the Jan. 23 public hearings, at 7:30 p.m.. The Wheatfield Town Board’s next regular meeting will be held on Jan. 5, after it’s annual reorganization meeting.