Ground solar array draws ire of neighbors during P&Z meeting – Marshalltown Times Republican

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Several commenters at Thursday night’s Planning and Zoning Commission meeting raised concerns about a ground solar array on North 6th Street in the backyard of a house on West State Street and the permitting process to allow it.

After wrapping up a discussion on parking rules with the goal of setting up a work session in the near future, the Marshalltown Planning and Zoning Commission moved on to another relatively controversial topic as a number of residents on North 6th Street expressed their displeasure with a ground solar array erected in their neighborhood, and concerns were raised about the permitting process.

As he kicked off the conversation, City Planner Hector Hernandez told the commission that the new zoning code adopted in 2022 does allow for small scale ground solar arrays as long as they are used for the dwelling.

“We’ve just been getting a lot more requests. We do allow, currently, grounded, mounted solar arrays as long as they’re located in the rear and interior of the site of the properties, and we would have to do Type B buffering currently alongside those adjacent property owners and public right-of-ways,” Hernandez said.

He added that he has reached out to officials in other Iowa communities and solar contractors to see how they handle applications and permits, noting that there are some in the Des Moines area that don’t allow ground arrays for visual and aesthetic reasons. P&Z Chairman Jon Boston asked Hernandez if there was anything wrong with the current ordinance that might need to be changed, and he responded that he has received multiple calls from people who are upset about the arrays being put up without buffering around them.

Boston said it would take a while for the trees around the arrays to grow, and he then welcomed comments from the public. Dee Norton was the first to come forward and voice her concern with the aforementioned array neighboring her property, which is on a lot purchased by All-American Property Management in the backyard of a house on West State Street that has been divided into apartment buildings.

“As I walk out on my front deck and sit down, now I see these solar panels. They put a six-foot fence up, that’s great, but I still see the top half of the solar panels and now a six-foot fence in a strict residential (neighborhood). It’s the only lot that is not built,” she said. “So we have houses surrounding it with, now, these solar panels.”

Norton felt the installation of the array would negatively affect her property value and quality of life and didn’t improve the appearance of the city. She also raised questions about whether the company installing the array had started work before a permit was issued and claimed they didn’t know where it was or even if they had one.

While noting that P&Z does not conduct enforcement hearings, commission member Steve Valbracht asked Hernandez if he had visited the site, and he said he likely had but did not remember exactly which one it was off the top of his head. Valbracht also sought clarification on whether the two lots — one on North 6th Street and one on West State Street — had been officially combined, and Hernandez said the process had already been completed by the county assessor’s office. On the Beacon website, however, they are still listed as separate lots.

Boston also asked about the height limit for backyard solar installations, and the group of residents reiterated that the array was “way taller” than six feet — their guess was at least nine. Another neighbor, Nancy Klar, said she had also asked to see the permit from the company, and they were unable to produce one.

Klar then called Hernandez, who, in her recollection, said they could not find a permit for the project. Valbracht, in his own research, felt that several other communities had much stronger codes for solar regulation than Marshalltown.

“This is very, very basic. It’s an up and coming topic. We should probably get ahead of it,” Valbracht said.

At-Large City Councilor Gary Thompson spoke next and said that because the array was built on a corner lot with a house facing State Street and the other lot facing 6th Street, it was illegal, and a permit never should have been approved.

“Our code says any street, and if your lot faces a street, it’s considered a front yard, so he put a solar array in a front yard even though it’s his backyard because it faces a street,” he said. “So this is a non-issue for you guys. This is something we will handle from the council level and make sure it gets cleaned up. But yes, you guys need to adopt, figure out (and) clean this stuff up because this is becoming a big issue.”

Thompson felt the screening and setbacks needed to be clarified and defined, and he said the commission had a lot of work ahead of it to fine tune the rules and regulations. Katherine Raveling, another neighbor, said she now looks out her kitchen window to see the “monstrosity,” as she described it, and didn’t feel it should be there.

Valbracht asked Hernandez what the residents should expect going forward to address the situation, and he responded that it would need to go to the city council for further review.

“It’s not a code issue, it’s an enforcement issue, correct?” Valbracht asked. “I want them to know what to look for moving forward because they have a specific concern, and it sounds like it’s valid.”

City Consultant Cindy Kendall asked the commission to “comprehensively” review the situation, citing the example of another array on city property where the height and width specs were not included on the permit. As someone who has a rooftop array on her own property, Kendall said there were a high number of arrays being built without permits inside city limits.

Leigh Bauder also noted that according to the Marshall County Beacon website, the two parcels have not yet been combined, which Boston pointed out can take up to a year to change over. Boston and Valbracht asked Hernandez to seek out ordinances from other communities and possibly even work with a consultant to determine best practices going forward.

After the meeting, Hernandez did clarify that a stop work order had been issued for this specific project in March before a permit was eventually issued for the State Street property on Thursday, the day of the meeting. He felt the code was unclear and would need to be strengthened to provide more specific guidelines in the future.

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