GV struggles with policy for ground-mounted solar panels – part two


At the Greenwood Village City Council meeting on July 12, an emergency ordinance saying the city will not accept or review any applications for permits for ground or pole-mounted solar energy systems anywhere in the city was made final. It expires on September 13. The issue grew out of a complaint to Councilmember Dave Bullock late last year by a GV resident about the appearance of a neighbor’s ground-mounted solar panels.

A 25-year GV resident, Bob Doyle, appeared at the meeting to speak on the subject. Doyle said, in part, “A moratorium of any kind is sending the wrong message to this community about the importance of solar, and a message that goes beyond this community as well…Last year’s cold in Texas, the heat in the northwest and elsewhere, the multi-year drought that has affected the west and western Colorado (where) we get our water, the associated wildfire season that we’re likely to see…all of these things point to a concern for human welfare, for ecology, for our economy, and they are by most people recognized as being linked to climate change. Taking action to say we should stop putting in solar is really taking a stand that these things are not important…I care a great deal about this community. I’ve lived here a long time,” Doyle asked the council to consider whether its “solution is worse than the problem” and to “think about whether this (issue) really warrants government involvement,” because, “Traditionally, things like this have been addressed at the neighborhood level.” 

He showed the council photos of a solar array put in by his next-door neighbor years ago, explaining that “at the time it was put in, I was concerned about the aesthetics of this system…Years later, my concerns are gone. Landscaping has been very effective in addressing this problem. It was because my neighbor and I talked and he put in trees and shrubs, evergreen and deciduous, that summer and winter mitigate the impact. I think that’s the solution for solar.”

Mayor Lantz told Doyle that the council would be discussing the issue further in a study session the following week. Bullock said that the city supports solar, adding, “And if anybody in the news tries to say that we’re anti-solar, well, they just absolutely are not listening to our discussion.” 

Asked if he had anything to add by Councilmember Pressley, Doyle said, “I would feel more confident about what your support for solar is if I knew that the city council had an agenda around climate and sustainability to further take action in this community to help solve that problem.”

At the study session on July 19, Derek Holcomb, GV community development director, reported that, in response to “council’s request that staff perform additional research” on the concerns raised by William Gray from COSSA (Colorado Solar and Storage Association) on June 7, “to see if what was being proposed was overly restrictive for owners of properties” in GV, Holcomb met with Gray, who suggested changes to the proposed rules.

COSSA’s recommendation differed primarily from what was in the ordinance Councilmember Bullock had introduced back on June 7 in that it recommended that ground or pole-mounted solar arrays be reasonably screened from neighbors’ views or be limited to 600 square feet per acre on lots under one acre and 600 square feet total on lots one acre or larger. Bullock’s ordinance required that all solar arrays must be reasonably screened from neighbor’s views and be limited to 450 square feet per acre on lots under one acre and 450 square feet total on lots one acre or larger.

This map presented by GV staff to city council illustrates that the allowable proposed area for ground mounted solar panels on a 1/4-acre lot is 117 square feet, depicted by the rectangle outlined in red.

Holcomb told the council that he also performed other research through the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Colorado Renewable Energy Society, the state energy office, and the CSU extension “to validate or invalidate whether the proposed (new law was) overly burdensome in consideration of council’s desire to regulate the aesthetics in GV.” He then reported that, “After performing the additional research and talking with Mr. Clay from COSSA, staff is not proposing any changes to the ordinance” from what was presented on June 7.

Holcomb added, “As I know and as council has articulated previously, the intent was not to ensure our regulations allow for ground-mounted facilities to provide 100 percent of all energy needs on the property.”

Councilmember Tom Dougherty pointed to the fact that the staff report given to council previously contained the recommendation that, “Ground-mounted or pole-mounted… solar energy systems may produce no more than 120% of the electrical energy needs of the principal residential use of the lot,” but that the ordinance being proposed limited the system to producing the actual amount of energy needed for the principal residence. He asked Holcomb, “Which is it? 100 percent or 120 percent?” When Holcomb replied that the “ordinance language (was) updated following my drafting of the staff report…due to concerns brought about…by previous discussions,” Dougherty wanted to know, “What was the basis for that?” Dougherty said that he did not recall “previous discussions saying that we wanted to limit the 120 percent to 100 percent.” Holcomb answered, “From what I recall in our last council meeting…that was…going to be changing in the state law and so it would be inconsistent.” Dougherty responded, “The state law, Senate Bill 261, is now 200 percent, so we’re further inconsistent…It was previously 120 percent and the staff report was at least in line with prior state law. SB261, which passed this session, now raises that number to 200 percent, but we’ve gone in the other direction and effectively lowered that number to 100 percent, so we’ve gone in the opposite direction of state legislation.” 

Dougherty continued, “State policy has for years been to encourage distributive energy resources such as this and to allow more production than what is needed… (because):    

1) it is consistent with the state’s energy policy;

2) it also helps the homeowner…pay for that system. It provides a financial incentive by creating excess generation that can then be net-metered back to the utility (Xcel) so as to provide an additional revenue stream that helps offset the cost of that (solar) facility.” 

He added, “SB261, recently signed into law, reemphasizes the importance of climate change issues, sustainability and energy independence, and is reflective of what so many people in our…state want, which is the ability to generate more clean energy at their home. Hence the increase from 120 percent to 200 percent. At a minimum, I think we’re heading in the wrong direction with regard to that aspect of the ordinance.”

After noting that the term “reasonably screened” was used in other places in GV’s code, Dougherty posed the question, “If it’s reasonably screened, why do we have an area limitation at all? If people can’t see it, then we shouldn’t have that concern.” 

Mayor Pro Tem Dave Kerber, speaking through a cell phone because he was remote and there was a glitch in the audio system (unlike the state, the county, and many cities in the area, GV does not video-record or video-stream its meetings), said, “We’ve forgotten what our purpose is. We’re not trying to maximize the solar output of citizens in the Village. We started with a legitimate complaint of people that didn’t like to see industrial facilities in back yards and that’s what we’re looking at…The question was, do these things look ugly or don’t they?… We talked about reasonably screening it. The problem is, reasonably screening it is not the same as ‘don’t see it.’ You can put it on your roof. I’m sorry that everybody’s roof can’t take it. If they’re really excited about that, they can cut down their trees and they can do whatever. But I think we’ve kind of lost the focus trying to maximize our citizens’ ability to get free electricity for rich people…I agree with Dave (Bullock) that these things are really ugly and inappropriate for residential areas.”

Bullock said, “It’ll come as no surprise that my thoughts are very similar to Mr. Kerber’s.” Crediting Dougherty with a “wonderful and comprehensive discussion” on pure solar, Bullock said that the overriding factor was the aesthetics of the neighbors, adding, “I don’t really believe the discussion here is trying to match up what the legislature has passed…I, for one, feel no connection or commitment to anything our legislature does because there’s many people in GV that don’t agree with what the legislature passes. So, for me, that argument doesn’t hold water…I’m not anti-solar. I’ve stated publicly that we looked very strongly at solar for our place in the mountains, it just wasn’t economically advantageous…” 

Councilmember Johnston said that “she wouldn’t be willing to increase the size beyond what we’ve already proposed (450 square feet/acre on smaller lots and 450 square feet total on large ones) but if that gets over 200 percent for somebody that’s great as long as it doesn’t obstruct my view unreasonably.”

Bullock thanked Dougherty for the information he had provided, but made it clear that “it doesn’t impact my personal decision,” noting his view that it was most important to limit the size of solar arrays because reasonable screening did not mean they couldn’t be seen at all. Bullock noted that he himself lives “in an area where there’s much larger lots” and “on 2 1/2-acre lots you can put what people perceive is a solar farm there.” The city attorney had previously stated that a solar farm was not allowed in a residential area of Greenwood Village. 

Bullock returned to the original issue that his neighbors were unhappy with their view of a legally-permitted solar array in an adjacent yard. It was not mentioned that the solar array that gave rise to the complaint was completely unscreened because when the city issued the permit for it, there was no requirement that it be screened.

Councilmember Presley confirmed that Dougherty felt that the primary goal to protect aesthetics was a requirement for reasonable screening along with the other limitations for accessory structures already in place.

Dougherty, who had previously shared that the complex rooflines of his family’s home, would not allow for roof-mounted solar panels, returned to the larger issue that, “A growing percentage of the people who live in this state care deeply about their ability to (use solar energy) and I believe a growing percentage of people who live in Greenwood Village care deeply about that issue as well, and we’re trying to strike the balance to…maximize their ability to do that and protect the aesthetics…I think reasonable screening is the key here.” Bullock responded that he believed that “most people don’t have as complicated rooflines as you have so…the majority of people could put those solar panels on their roofs.” 

Councilmember Anne Ingebretsen asked if renderings could be prepared to denote the appearance of using the 600 square feet per acre limit for ground-mounted solar arrays that COSSA recommended compared to the 450 square feet per acre that staff proposed. Councilmembers Judith Hilton agreed, as did Councilmember Libby Barnacle, Hilton’s daughter. Mayor Lantz agreed as well and Holcomb said he would do just that for the continuation of the discussion at the city council’s August 16 study session. 


Editor’s note: This is a continuation of the report on page 2 of the July 29 Villager. We will continue this series on it as the debate continues and decisions are made.