Court: NH communities can’t reject solar on looks alone –

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Four communities in New Hampshire have been recognized as solar-welcoming by SolSmart, a federally funded organization that helps municipalities expand solar power. Franklin is not among them, and a recent state Supreme Court opinion likely won’t help get them there.

In a unanimous decision last week, the court overturned the Franklin Planning Board’s denial of a solar project that met the city’s zoning ordinance but was opposed by neighbors who argued it would ruin the scenery and bring down their property values. 

A recent New Hampshire Supreme Court ruling favored solar panels.

Then, in a move not often seen, the justices essentially stamped the project, which would sit on about six acres of a 96-acre former Franklin golf course, approved by issuing a “builder’s remedy,” which allows a project to move forward if it meets zoning ordinances. 

In its ruling, the court said a board cannot deny projects that comply with ordinances based on its “own personal feelings.” Franklin has a solar ordinance and has permitted solar farms elsewhere, including an industrial park. Neither its planning department nor its attorney returned requests for comment.

GSSG New Hampshire, the company behind the proposed 1 megawatt solar array at the Mojalaki Country Club, is not alone in navigating what some call the Wild West of zoning ordinances in New Hampshire when it comes to solar projects.

“Many solar companies, if they see a town that doesn’t have a (solar) ordinance, won’t even bother to respond to a request because they know that no matter what they do … it could be shut down for whatever reason somebody randomly comes up with,” said Katrin Kasper of Clean Energy NH, which is developing a model solar ordinance for municipalities creating or revising their own ordinances. “And then many, many ordinances are created with the intent of exclusion, not inclusion. They’re not created because they want to increase the amount of solar, they’re just concerned about, ‘We don’t want it here, and we don’t want it there.’”

Solar power is hardly new to the state. 

New Hampshire passed a property tax exemption for renewable energy in 1976 and saw the first utility-scale solar-powered facility open in Merrimack in 2019. The state Department of Energy runs a renewable energy rebate program and provides guidance on its website on developing solar. In January, it announced a grant program to help less affluent cities and towns access the environmental and financial benefits of solar power. 

Still, the state ranks 41st in the country for solar installations, according to the Solar Energy Industry Association, and the majority of New Hampshire municipalities have not adopted solar ordinances for regular rooftop or ground-mounted solar panels.

The number is growing however, according to the Department of Business and Economic Affairs, from 48 in 2020 to 72 in 2023. Heather Shank, a senior planner with the department, said in an email her agency expects that to continue as the demand for solar grows.

The New Hampshire Sustainable Energy Association, now called Clean Energy NH, issued a model solar ordinance in 2018. Kasper, who works with Seacoast communities for the agency, said it needs to be updated to accommodate advances in the efficiency of solar and awareness of how it can be used. 

For example, fire departments have been reluctant to tackle fires at homes with rooftop solar over safety concerns, including electric shock and slipping off a slippery array of panels, Kasper said. Those concerns can be addressed by knowing to shut off the power and laying out rooftop panels in a way that leaves some of the roof exposed, to give firefighters a footing.

There have been changes in rules governing how large commercial solar arrays can be and where rooftop panels can be placed. Instead of limiting them to south-facing roofs, they can now also face east or west, she said.

There have also been studies done on a solar project’s impact on local tax rates, including one last year by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory that showed the resale values of homes within a half mile of a large utility solar farm were on average 1.5 percent less than homes farther away. 

Landowners who opt to develop their land with solar instead of housing or a commercial business contribute property taxes without putting demand on roads, schools, and public safety, Kasper said. “There are very few things that a town can do to actually get in revenue that doesn’t just cost them money,” she said.

With a model ordinance and education around solar, Clean Energy NH hopes to give local officials a tool to move forward with solar – and respond to community complaints about the appearance and impact of solar.

“There could be 500 people in the community that love the idea but this one neighbor is upset and they come to a planning board meeting,” Kasper said. “And the planning board doesn’t have any ordinance in place and they’re like, I guess we just won’t do it because that’s easiest. That’s the path of least resistance.”

This story was originally published by the New Hampshire Bulletin.

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