Pitkin County officials seek clarity on solar panel issues
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado
OLD SNOWMASS – Faced with the prospect of embracing the use of solar power, but reining in the visual impacts of solar panels, four Pitkin County commissioners visited a handful of installations Tuesday, seeking enlightenment on how to balance the competing goals.
If they found clarity on the issue, they can put it to use on June 8, when proposed land-use regulations related to solar panels are back before commissioners.
Tuesday’s tour included a stop to inspect ground-mounted panels east of Aspen, at the entrance to Difficult Campground, where a property owner has complied with the county’s existing 10-foot height limit on solar panels that are affixed to a pole planted in the ground.
“We heard a lot from the solar community that they need 16 feet or more to make it work,” said Mike Kraemer, county planner. “These folks seem to have made it work with 10 feet.”
The panels are visible to travelers coming down from Independence Pass, but they’re not blocking any notable views, said Lance Clarke, deputy director of Community Development for the county.
But when panels affect a neighbor, the tradeoffs get trickier, commissioners noted, pondering the merit of requiring pricey studies of potential glare, or mandating adjustable panels. Those steps could inhibit the installation of the panels by adding to the cost, Clarke said.
“To what extent do we facilitate the use of solar energy versus inhibit it? It’s a tough situation,” he said.
Commissioners, with Rachel Richards absent, also checked out an east-Aspen home where solar conductors are built into the roofing shingles, and a ground-mounted array in Woody Creek that stands 20 feet high. It was installed before the first set of solar regulations was adopted.
The proposed new regulations would allow panels that, at a maximum, are 12 feet off the ground. A panel surface area of 400-plus square feet would require additional review to make neighbors aware of the proposal.
The proposed new regulations would continue to allow roof-mounted panels that exceed the allowed roof height by four feet.
In Little Elk Creek, an Old Snowmass subdivision, property owner Tim Lindholm has erected four ground-mounted arrays that move to track the movement of the sun. He obtained a variance from the county for their 16-foot maximum height because surrounding trees and his nearby house would otherwise cast shadows on the panels.
Lindholm’s panels supply all of his own electricity needs and feed power back to the utility’s grid. They have been placed so they don’t compromise a nearby neighbor’s views.
But Little Elk Creek neighbor Sherri Spykerman and her husband, Andre Schwegler, are dealing with glare from two other nearby homes with roof-mounted solar panels that meet the county’s current requirements. Spykerman showed commissioners photos of the glare that hits their home on both the front and back sides at certain times of the year.
They have spent $20,000 on trees to reduce the impact on the front of their home.
“It covers the whole width of my house – the glare,” Spykerman said.
She urged the county to put the onus on the responsible party if a solar installation negatively impacts someone else.
The county regulates nuisances, but solar panels pose a new challenge. Glare can be an issue only at certain times of the day, and in certain seasons.
“It’s how we define what’s a nuisance and what’s not,” said Commissioner Rob Ittner.
The impact, however, goes beyond glare, Schwegler said. “We feel like it’s impacted the value of our property,” he said.
“It’s a can of worms, but that doesn’t muddy the water on who’s responsible for it,” said Ken Smith, a member of the Snowmass-Capitol Creek Caucus, siding with Spykerman’s call to hold installers and their clients responsible for impacts.
“For the future, maybe we can manage this better,” Commissioner Jack Hatfield agreed.
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