Portsmouth debate over regulation of solar arrays pits climate change vs. preservation – Seacoastonline.com

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PORTSMOUTH — Historic District Commission members debated how much an ordinance regulating the placement of solar arrays downtown should be changed during a sometimes contentious meeting this week.

The discussion about the HDC’s power to review applications to install solar arrays in the city’s historic district at times broadened to include comments about how the city was meeting or not meeting its goal to address climate change.

The workshop meeting concluded Wednesday night with commissioners agreeing to suggest potential additional changes to the zoning ordinance concerning solar arrays.

Martin Ryan, a longtime member of Portsmouth's Historic District Commission, says if it were up to him there would be no solar arrays in the Historic District.

‘We’ve done nothing’ on climate change, councilor says

The HDC held the workshop meeting on the issue after City Councilors Rich Blalock, who serves on the HDC, and Josh Denton filed a motion recently seeking to take the HDC’s authority away to review the installation of solar arrays in the historic district.

Blalock repeated at Wednesday’s meeting that despite the proposed amendment to the regulations being considered by the HDC, solar arrays should not fall under its purview.

He shared that during a recent meeting with high school students, they asked him what the City Council had done for the environment.

“We’ve done nothing. We haven’t done anything yet,” he told the students.

Portsmouth City Councilor Rich Blalock continued to maintain solar arrays should not fall under the purview of the Historic District Commission.

He reminded the group later in the meeting that installing solar arrays is “one way we’re trying to encourage the residents of Portsmouth” to address climate change.

He said the city of Dover is considering taking $30,000 off the value of a home’s tax assessment if homeowners install solar arrays.

Just the beginning?

HDC member Jon Wyckoff noted that for the past 15 to 20 years he’s “heard the word sustainability mentioned so often in council meetings and on plans and in policy.”

“You’re right the city hasn’t done anything. We’re all just looking at the same old same old,” he said.

Allowing solar panels in the historic district could play “a small part” toward addressing climate change, he said.

“Hopefully it’s the beginning for the city because what I would like to see is I would like to see Portsmouth be more progressive,” Wyckoff said. “In the year 2030, they might not have solar panels, but the future is now. I think that’s what a lot of us are ignoring.”

A ‘fundamental difference’ in policy leads to disagreements

But many commission members suggested the proposed amendment the HDC is working on to return to the City Council would make a “huge” difference.

The amendment, according to a draft copy posted with meeting materials, would remove the requirement for homeowners to get a certificate of approval from the HDC when their solar array is not visible from a public way.

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As its written now, applicants must appear before the HDC if they want to install an array in the historic district.

If a solar array will be “minimally visible” from a public way, an applicant could seek just an administrative approval from the city planning staff rather than the full HDC, according to the proposed amendment.

Commission member Larry Booz called that proposed change “a fundamental difference” to what exists now.

It would end up, he said, “saving a lot of people from having to come into the HDC for approval.”

“That’s huge and I think that was something that was missed at our last meeting by a couple of people,” he stated during Wednesday’s meeting.

Booz, without naming names, suggested “two of us are sitting here playing politics, and it’s not about politics, its about approving language.”

“This is a huge change, it’s just not the change that two of us may want, saying we’re going to let them everywhere,” he said. “The HDC does have a function unless the council chooses to remove it.”

Commission member Martin Ryan said he liked the proposed changes.

“For me personally it’s a huge move,” Ryan said. “Because if it were up to me and I were looking at this from a purely preservationist view, I would think no panels should be ever in the historic district at all, because of the nature of the panel.”

But he understands that “people want them” and “believe that they make a difference.

“I think this is a huge concession, and I’d be willing to get behind this,” he said. “I don’t like the language but I can swallow hard and accept it.”

He addressed the sustainability goals of the city, calling them “wonderful,” “fantastic” and “great.”

But he pointed to city properties “where we could put fields of solar panels.”

“What do we focus on, the historic district … our precious heritage, we’re focused on that, seriously,” Ryan said.

Ryan maintained that the city could preserve the historic district “and still be vey sustainable.”

“Let’s do it without flushing our historic architecture out the window because that’s what I’m seeing,” Ryan said.

Historic District Commission Chair Reagan Ruedig believes the HDC can balance the effort to install solar arrays in Portsmouth's historic district with preservation.

HDC Chair Reagan Ruedig acknowledged that in the amendment it might be necessary to better define the term “minimally visible.”

She also on several occasions tried to get the board to focus on the proposed amendment, rather than larger issues.

“We want to look at it comprehensively, and we want to come together and put something in the ordinance that we have here, that makes it easy for an applicant to meet these criteria,” she said.

She added later that “nobody’s going to get exactly what they want out of this, we are all going to have to find compromise.”

The HDC didn’t take a formal vote on the draft amendment because it was a workshop meeting. The members agreed to send any other proposed changes to Ruedig to consider.

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