Land Management Planning Committee continues work on solar arrays, gets update on marinas and docks

Joanne Cole

Primed with a revised draft ordinance, the Land Management Planning Committee continued discussing large-scale solar arrays at its July 24 meeting.  The committee is focusing on ground-mounted projects (not rooftop installations) while a voter-approved six-month moratorium is in place.  This meeting addressed possible requirements for planning board review, fencing, setbacks, and removal of abandoned arrays.  In other business, town planner Scott Hastings updated the committee on his research concerning marinas under New Gloucester’s ordinances.  His conclusion is likely to cheer residents concerned about development pressures on Sabbathday Lake: commercial marinas are not allowed.

LMPC’s discussion of solar arrays began with what kinds of projects ought to trigger full-blown site plan review by the planning board.  The current draft ordinance draws the line at 1500 square feet of panel area: projects under 1500 s.f. would be reviewed only by the code enforcement officer; larger projects would undergo full planning board review.  The group was intrigued by a suggestion from resident Carl Wilcox to make project output and efficiency the criterion rather than size, so that a more efficient array would be rewarded with less review.  However, committee chair Brian Shedlarski cautioned that size is what has an impact on the community and that keeping up with rapid technological advances could prove challenging.  For now, the committee will stay with project size as the criterion for determining the level of review.

The discussion of project size included clarifications that will help ongoing apples-to-apples comparisons – specifically whether square footage relates to the project’s overall footprint, including the spaces between rows of panels, or instead to the area of angled collection panels.  Town planner Hastings estimated, for example, that the Planson International solar array on Penney Road, thought to be the only ground-mounted solar project in town, has perhaps a 6000 s.f. footprint.  (A photo on the firm’s website suggests the project’s scale.)  By contrast, Hastings estimated Geiger’s arrays in Lewiston, visible from the turnpike, at 12,500 s.f. of panels on a one-acre footprint.  He will check with ReVision Energy for details about project sizes and report back. 

The committee also discussed requirements for fencing and setbacks.  The current draft calls for projects 1500 s.f. and larger to have a 6’ high locking fence for security, waivable by the Planning Board.  Fencing is a particular concern for offsite arrays where no owner is on hand to monitor safety and security. 

As to setbacks, the committee considered whether to allow the planning board to reduce the usual setbacks by half, to reduce them ‘as needed,’ or to waive them altogether if the edge of the property were the only viable option for good sun exposure.  It should depend on what’s on the other side of the line, they concluded.  In a residential district, member John Salisbury commented, maintaining a setback requirement is reasonable, particularly for screening.  But what about an array next to a railroad or power line or some other commercial use? Or next to a school or the turnpike or a vacant lot?  George Colby thought that arrays should be permitted to go “to the property line,” but a survey should be required.  Shedlarski commented that for him, the “sticky area” is vacant land that could have a house but doesn’t yet.  Putting up an array without any setback, he said, “you’re impacting, if not the value, at least the appeal” of the neighboring property.  Don Libby said that requiring half the standard setback would be consistent with how the planning board acts in other cases.  Hastings thought requiring half in zones with generous setbacks might still be too strict.  He’ll return with specific numbers and proposed language. 

The committee next discussed how to guard against abandonment of arrays at the end of their useful life.  The ordinance could require removal and a bond in an amount sufficient to cover the costs, committee members said.  Given that solar arrays, like cell towers, are often sited on leased land, Libby noted the risk of the operator walking away, leaving the landowner stuck.  Everyone agreed that any bond/removal requirement would need careful drafting to clarify who’s responsible: the operator, the owner, or both.    

Wrapping up and looking ahead, Hastings said he hopes to generate a “solid draft” solar ordinance for the committee’s August 28 meeting.  A public workshop would follow in the fall.

Turning to Sabbathday Lake, Hastings reported that the town’s current shoreland zoning prohibits a commercial marina.  Questions about marinas, docks and moorings have reached LMPC in the wake of a controversial application for a 70-foot dock, including whether a back lot owner with a right-of-way could establish a commercial marina on the lake.  In a word, no, according to Hastings.  Plenty of other questions remain, however—about shared ownership of marinas or docks, access and docks for ‘keyhole’ or ‘funnel’ developments, and more—all in a context where the interests and current practices of lake owners need to be considered.  Hastings will continue his investigation, and lake issues will return to the LMPC agenda. 

Video of the July 24 Land Management Planning Committee meeting is available here.