Some residents of an upscale housing development were surprised to see six large solar installations put up in their neighbor’s yard in the fall.
And the homeowner who wanted to save money by generating solar energy was just as shocked by his neighbors’ reaction when they gathered a petition with 73 signatures of people concerned about how the panels look.
“It’s right in the middle of a residential neighborhood — you’re just surprised,” said Lisa Doan, who lives two doors down from Brian and Christa Haines, who erected the panels at 44 Long Creek Drive in Seelye Estates West, a deed-restricted development of custom homes off Blue Barns Road.
Doan heard people talking about the panels at the polling place during the November elections, and she and some other residents canvassed the 50 homes on Long Creek Drive and then brought the petition to the Town Board.
“It was not malicious by any means,” Doan said. “It was strictly, ‘Is it a concern?’ ”
Brian Haines said he discussed the panels informally with some neighbors whom he invited to his house for a party a few weeks before installing them.
“A lot of the neighbors had said they liked the idea of solar panels, and I guess that’s not the case,” he said. “Personally, I don’t understand why the other neighbors haven’t talked with me.”
The six installations are each made up of 10 smaller panels connected. Assembled, each of the six pole-mounted large panels stand nearly 14 feet high.
As required by town code, the Haineses submitted a plot plan to the town building department and got a permit Sept. 9. But when the zoning enforcement officer went out to inspect the installed panels in mid-December, two of the six installations were too close to the road, violating a 14-foot setback.
Building inspector Thomas Johnson said the poles weren’t installed according to the submitted plan, so the Haineses had to either move the poles or go before the Zoning Board of Appeals to request an exemption. They decided to move them.
A crew worked on Thursday and Friday to relocate the panels.
The zoning officer’s visit was the first Haines had heard about the neighbors’ objections.
“It was almost a full month from the time the petitions had been signed,” he said.
New rules possible
Now the Town Board is considering enacting a six-month moratorium on new pole-mounted solar installations while it contemplates adding something to the zoning ordinance about those types of structures. Currently, pole-mounted solar panels are considered accessory structures and go through the same approval process as building a shed, requiring only a building permit in most cases.
But as green energy has gotten more popular, other municipalities, including Clifton Park, have put in place zoning laws specific to alternative energy installations to spell out what process property owners have to go through to install them.
Ballston town Supervisor Patti Southworth said the board will hold a public hearing about the moratorium at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 31, before its regular meeting at Town Hall. The town needs to look into federal regulations and other issues before considering an addition to the zoning ordinance about solar panels, Southworth said.
Solar panels aren’t new to Ballston — other town properties already have them, including the new Ballston Spa National Bank building near the corner of routes 67 and 50, said Planning Board Chairman Richard Doyle. Those panels are on the roof and aren’t noticeable, however. Some homes have them too, on roofs, on the ground or on poles, but they are smaller and haven’t generated controversy, Doyle said.
“We have homes with pedestals, but not six like Long Creek.”
In Clifton Park, controversy in the spring about a “solar shed” at a home on Addison Way spurred that town’s change in its zoning law, which now requires a special-use permit for solar installations on pedestals or on the ground. Roof installations and those in commercial zones still only need a building permit.
Doan said she would like to see Ballston have a law similar to Clifton Park.
Outside of the town zoning issue, Doan believes the panels also may violate the development’s deed restrictions, which Haines said prohibit “offensive structures.”
But there’s no homeowner’s association or governing council to determine what constitutes an offensive structure, which means neighbors will have to take civil action in court if they want to challenge the installations.
On the other hand, Haines and Doan both said the panels have probably spurred discussion among people thinking about solar power for their own homes.
“This probably piqued interest,” Doan said. “There are probably some people sitting at the kitchen table saying, ‘We should look into doing this.’ ”
Haines expects the solar power will work out well for his household. He and his wife both work from home, so their power needs are higher than those of people who leave home to work all day.
“It should offset 100 percent” of the power usage for lights, computers, TVs and the furnace fan, Haines said. The home’s furnace and hot water heater are gas-powered.
The couple’s average $250 monthly electric bill dropped to $20 last month, he said.
Ground-mounted solar panels are less obtrusive but also generate less power than pole-mounted ones, which can be tilted throughout the year to maximize reception based on whether the sun is lower or higher in the sky, Haines said.