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The Journal Gazette

  • Rachel Von | The Journal Gazette Ground-mounted solar arrays, like this one on St. Marys Avenue, require special zoning permits from Allen County and Fort Wayne.

  • Rachel Von | The Journal Gazette A solar array sits at the corner of St. Mary's and Irene Ave. on Friday October 26, 2018 that was installed by Mark Brough of Modern Mill Solar.

  • Rachel Von | The Journal Gazette A solar array sits at the corner of St. Mary's and Irene Ave. on Friday October 26, 2018 that was installed by Mark Brough of Modern Mill Solar.

  • Rachel Von | The Journal Gazette A solar array sits at the corner of St. Mary's and Irene Ave. on Friday October 26, 2018 that was installed by Mark Brough of Modern Mill Solar.

Sunday, November 04, 2018 1:00 am

Regulatory hoops hinder ground-based solar

ROSA SALTER RODRIGUEZ | The Journal Gazette

Just call Mark Brough Fort Wayne's Mr. Sunshine.

Since moving back to the city 10 years ago to remodel and resell houses, Brough lately has turned his attention to selling and installing solar arrays. That's the business he pursued during the years he spent in San Diego.

Brough says with recent and anticipated rate hikes by area electric utilities, solar power now makes sense locally, and his business has been growing rapidly. It's one of a few in the area specializing in solar arrays, which convert sunlight into storable electric power.

But the business also has thrown the 45-year-old into the territory of Fort Wayne's and Allen County's boards of zoning appeals, where the outlook has not always been sunny.

Solar arrays mounted on a roof? No problem – they need just routine building and electrical permits and inspections, said John Caywood, Allen County's building department director.

But a sizable portion of Brough's business, Modern Mill Solar LLC, involves solar arrays mounted on the ground. Each requires a zoning board application, public hearing, favorable board decision, sign-offs from other agencies, the possibility of board-mandated design changes and, Brough said, about three months from sale to installation.

“We don't really like to do them,” Brough said of ground-mounted arrays after last month's Allen County Board of Zoning Appeals public hearing and business meeting. He cited time required and the amount of paperwork.

And he's not the only one. “It's a real journey with Allen County,” said Doug Ahlfeld, project manager with Renewable Energy Systems in Avilla, in the solar business more than 35 years.

Most places he's worked in northeast Indiana require very little in the way of permitting, he said. “But the Allen County planning department requires this whole process, and it's very detailed and time-consuming.”

It can add hundreds of dollars in cost because of time needed to travel to and attend board meetings, which either occur on work time or require him to give up evenings, he said.

Still, ground mounts can be necessary, Brough said.

Roof configurations or shade patterns from trees can make roof-mounted designs impractical or inefficient, he said. And often, the customer has a large lot where a ground mount would not take up too much space and would be easier to install.

No ordinance

But for zoning appeals boards, decisions aren't always easy. That's because neither the city nor county has an ordinance automatically allowing or streamlining the process for ground-mounted residential solar installations.

They're allowed only after being individually approved under special-use provisions of city and county zoning codes.

That's because an array, depending on design, “potentially might have a pretty significant impact on a neighboring property,” said Bryan McMillan, senior planner for the Allen County Department of Planning Services. He said roof-mounted arrays are of less concern because they're on an already sited and approved structure.

McMillan said the area's regulatory approach, which includes opportunity for public notification and comment, ensures that a ground-mounted array meets setback requirements and doesn't reflect onto someone's house or even into the path of aircraft.

Planning records show that since the solar array provision became part of an updated zoning ordinance in 2014, there have been only one or two requests a year.

But in October alone, seven applications, all from customers of Brough's business, had public hearings before boards of zoning appeals. Deliberations took 15 minutes to more than an hour – for each project.

Objections

In some cases, deliberations were lengthy because board members were unfamiliar with solar arrays and asked basic and technical questions. In about a third of cases, neighbors objected and were given time to testify.

Neighbors contended that ground-mounted arrays would produce glare and obscure sight lines and are unsightly and likely to become more so over time.

At the recent city board of zoning appeals meeting, two requests were approved without much discussion. But one “had a lot of neighbor opposition, and that tells us that this is something that is subject to debate and should be looked at more carefully,” McMillan said.

The Fort Wayne International Airport also has weighed in on two recent cases because the properties were in airport overlay districts, which restrict uses that might impede flight paths.

Letters sent to the planning department said airport officials “don't want permits issued until information is provided about the anti-glare properties of panels in overlay districts,” McMillan said.

Scott Hinderman, Fort Wayne-Allen County Airport Authority airports executive director, said he's all for renewable energy – and the local airport is considering a solar array for the grounds. However, the Federal Airport Authority requires pre-installation glare studies, he said.

“There should be a glare study done. It's not a complex study or a difficult study. We have safe airports and we want to keep it that way,” Hinderman said.

Brough did not offer a glare study but at the meeting said nearly all panels now are considered anti-glare.

Allen County's agency overseeing drainage and septic issues also has to sign off, Ahlfeld said. That largely is to prevent interference in drainage patterns or flood plains, he said.

But in one of his customer's cases, he said, the agency said it would not allow an array until a malfunctioning septic system on a neighboring property of the same owner was replaced – and that caused the customer to call off the job because of the increased expense, he said.

“When you're involving a septic system, I don't see the relevance,” Ahlfeld said.

Zoning appeals boards did not disallow any of October's applications, although they did restrict at least one. Extra requirements, such as screening or fencing, can be added by boards through written commitments to applications.

Case-by-case approvals run the risk of having identical installations with very different restrictions based on neighbors' opinions, Brough and McMillan agree. But they also agree it would be difficult to write a general ordinance to streamline procedures. That's because each is customized as to height, pitch, site characteristics, and the size and number of panels, Brough said.

A ground-mounted solar array ordinance “isn't on our radar,” McMillan said.

Ahlfeld, who has been in the business since 1979, said he sees solar installations as becoming more standardized and therefore easier to regulate. But he doesn't see Allen County changing its policies.

“These (ground-mounted arrays) should be allowed through the electrical permit. I don't see why the land-use people should be involved,” he said. “It's hindering the progress of the industry.”

rsalter@jg.net