×

Jim Kenyon: Lights Out on Solar in Hanover

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.


Wednesday, September 12, 2018

When Bill Rosen was looking to install a small solar array next to his house on Purling Brooks Drive in Hanover, he purposely picked a spot that was a bit hidden from the street.

“I was trying to be sensitive to my neighbors,” Rosen, a retired Dartmouth-Hitchcock ophthalmologist, told me. “I didn’t want to put up anything that they might find offensive.”

After checking with his neighbors in the subdivision, which is off River Road, Rosen figured he was good to go. All that was left was for town officials to sign off.

And how tough could that be?

In 2017, Hanover voters had overwhelmingly endorsed a Town Meeting proposal that calls for the town to obtain 100 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2050.

Rosen’s project — 20 small solar panels on a single 12-foot-high pole — seemed in tune with Hanover’s lofty goal of eliminating the town’s dependency on fossil fuels. “I thought by going solar I was doing the right thing,” he said.

But last week, the Hanover Planning Board, by a vote of 4 to 3, pulled the plug on Rosen’s project, ruling it didn’t adhere to the town’s land-use requirements for so-called “open space” subdivisions.

“I thought it would be a slam dunk,” Rosen told me when I stopped by his house on Monday. “But the way (town officials) acted, you’d think I was putting in a nuclear silo.”

In a town supposedly committed to promoting renewable energy, how could this have happened?

Purling Brooks Drive is an upscale (I know, in Hanover that goes without saying) 10-home cul-de-sac subdivision built in the early 2000s by Simpson Development Corp. on a former gravel pit.

The town requires subdivisions with smaller lots to have a 100-foot “open space buffer” around the development. Individual homeowners are prohibited from building any structures, such as tool sheds or playhouses, inside the buffer zone — even when the land is part of their lot.

Rosen, who was among the first to move into Purling Brooks a dozen years ago, bought the house nearest River Road, which is barely visible through a cluster of trees and a steep bank.

He only became aware of the buffer regulation this summer, when he sought a permit to install the solar array on the side of his lawn closest to River Road.

The spot was 75 feet from the road — or, more importantly from the town’s standpoint — 25 feet inside the buffer zone.

In August, Rosen went to the Planning Board, whose members are appointed by the Selectboard, to request a waiver of the subdivision regulation, which is intended to keep at least some acreage within housing developments in their natural state.

Over the course of two public meetings, it became apparent that Planning Board members were split on Rosen’s request. Some contended that Rosen had made a “compelling case” to place the array “unobtrusively in the back of his lot.”

Other members argued there were other spots — his front lawn, being one — on his 1½-acre lot that could accommodate the array. He also could cut down some trees, including two white birches, to make room, opponents maintained.

“I’m not cutting down beautiful trees or sticking it in front of my neighbors’ houses,” Rosen said.

Another possibility: Install the array on his roof, board members said. It just so happens that Laura Ray, a professor at Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering who recently was named the school’s interim dean, is among Rosen’s neighbors.

In an email to the planning department, Ray pointed out that a roof-mounted array wouldn’t generate as much energy and could cause structural damage to the house. “I don’t believe any board members are experts and thus they should have stayed silent on the matter,” she wrote.

Rosen — or more to the point, the solar company he hired to install the array — made one mistake. New Hampshire Solar, which is based in the Lakes Region, applied for a town permit in June. But it went ahead with constructing the array’s concrete base and putting up the metal pole while the application still was under review.

And I think that’s part of the rub.

“Admittedly we might have jumped the gun, but (we) had no reason to suspect any problem with the permit,” Peter Hall, of New Hampshire Solar, emailed me on Tuesday. He added that he did his “due diligence,” by checking Hanover zoning regulations, but didn’t find anything about a 100-foot buffer zone, he wrote.

New Hampshire Solar has returned the $22,000 that Rosen had paid the company, which is out a “couple of thousand dollars directly in labor and materials,” Hall wrote.

Rosen told me that he hasn’t decided if it’s worth the time and expense to appeal the board’s decision, which would require taking the case to Grafton Superior Court.

“I find it hypocritical for the town to have a mandate that encourages people to go solar and then they do this,” he said.

On Monday, I talked with Planning Board Chairwoman Judith Esmay, who voted against Rosen’s request for a waiver. “These are not easy issues, and the Planning Board struggled with it,” she said. “We couldn’t relax our standards for this one case.”

It’s probably no consolation to Rosen, but his case has given the Planning Board a lot to think about, Esmay said. Starting with: Does the town need to be “more flexible”?

Two worthy public policy goals — preserving open space and promoting renewable energy — have collided.

Regulations are regulations, I guess. But if eliminating Hanover’s dependency on fossil fuels is truly a priority, the town’s land-use regulations need to reflect that.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.