The Boulder County Planning Commission is considering amendments to its land use codes that would create new opportunities for solar installations.
(TNS) — The Boulder County, Colo., Planning Commission on Monday is to consider Land Use Code amendments that would update existing rules and regulations applying to solar energy systems and could increase the opportunity for solar systems on private and public properties in unincorporated parts of the county.
"The intent of the proposed code amendments is to facilitate solar energy installation in appropriate locations while balancing the county's sustainability-related goals and policies with the scenic, agricultural and environmental values of the Boulder County Comprehensive Plan," the staff wrote in a memo for Monday afternoon's meeting.
The Land Use Department staff said that it had collaborated with the Parks and Open Space Department, the county's Sustainability Office and a consultant to identify potential locations for solar gardens in Boulder County.
"Through this work, staff identified a need to address the scarcity of sites meeting both technical needs of solar installation and the current code criteria for solar energy systems greater than 100kW."
Under consideration at the planning panel's meeting, the staff wrote, will be code amendments "that would strike a more appropriate balance between the impacts associated with solar energy systems and the level of regulatory requirements" the county has for approving or denying such solar development project proposals.
One of the objectives of the proposed code revisions would be to facilitate building-mounted and parking canopy solar energy systems through code provisions specific to those uses. Another, the staff said, would increase appropriate locations and opportunities for community solar gardens.
Code language would be updated to be consistent with current solar industry standards, and the amendments would revise the county's present regulations about the size categories of ground-mounted solar energy systems, basing them on the acreage of land that would be disturbed rather than the electrical output capacity of the solar array.
The staff said impacts such as the land disturbances associated with installing community solar gardens and utility-scale ground-mounted solar arrays have decreased as a result of improved technology and current industry best practices.
"Instead of leveling entire parcels and disturbing large areas of land with heavy equipment, current solar energy system installation methods use pile-driven anchors," the staff said in its memo for Monday's meeting.
However, the proposed amendments would continue to prohibit solar development on either Boulder County Parks and Open Space properties or privately owned properties over which the county holds conservation easements.
Nor would solar energy systems producing more than 100kW be permitted on lands the Boulder County Comprehensive Plan designates as natural landmarks, natural areas or critical wildlife habitat.
Boulder County's current Land Use Code currently prohibits solar energy systems producing more than 100kW — a size of solar facility the staff said typically disturbs a 0.5 acre area — on any properties the comprehensive plan designates as "Significant Agricultural Lands."
The staff has recommended allowing solar projects on Significant Agricultural Lands, subject to conditions, after reporting it had concluded that solar systems can be "a minimally impactful land use, which has substantial benefits to reducing the county's greenhouse gas emissions."
The staff said its recommended code changes would also revise current provisions for agricultural and forestry zoning districts "to increase solar development opportunities" and would allow medium and large solar projects in more of the county's other zoning districts, including Transitional, Business, unplatted Rural Residential and unplatted Estate Residential districts.
The current code only allows those medium- and large-scale ground-mounted solar energy systems in Light Industrial, General Industrial, Commercial, Agricultural and Forestry zoning districts.
"The county approaches permitting additional development very cautiously in the rural areas and has taken successful measures in limiting and managing development to protect environmental and cultural resources," the staff wrote planning panel members.
The staff said proposed solar energy system amendments "recognize the impacts of this increased development but also recognize the tremendous environmental benefits of better accommodating this use" — adding that "while the regulations open up the potential for further development and related impacts, they also require a process where projects will be evaluated, reviewed, and based on site-specific approvals may be conditions to further impacts."
The Board of County Commissioners in May authorized the Land Use staff to pursue the possible solar energy system amendments, and the Planning Commission discussed the status of those possible changes during a July study session.
Planner Sinead O'Dwyer said three individuals wrote the county in support of the proposed amendments.
Boulder resident Nick Campion, for example, wrote: "I am glad to see the county opening up new areas, such as lands of agricultural significance, for solar development. Solar arrays add value to the landscape and don't detract from it. More solar energy in Boulder County will lead to a brighter future for the area."
Monday's Planning Commission consideration of the solar energy code amendments will include a public hearing.
Boulder County Land Use Code amendments require final approval by the Board of County Commissioners. If the Planning Commission makes no significant changes to what the staff has proposed, the amendments could be scheduled for a Board of County Commissioners hearing and possible action sometime in October.
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