Quincy man’s bright idea runs into bureaucratic obstacles
QUINCY — Seeking to power his single-family house entirely by the sun, electrician Walter Cowham bought plans and materials for a ground-mounted array to build in his backyard, a treed hillside overlooking Quincy’s busy Adams Street.
Cowham built up the ground to make a level building site, spent more than $12,000 on the project, pulled the only permit the city told him he would need, talked to neighbors, and looked forward to the day when instead of paying his electric company, the company would be paying him.
Then with the installation almost complete, he came home from work to find a stop work order from the city plastered on his door. Quincy’s building inspector ruled that the solar array was an “accessory structure” and had to conform to zoning rules intended for backyard sheds and garages.
“I was trying to do something good,” Cowham said recently, “but they acted as if I was doing something bad.”
Cowham’s experience illustrates the regulatory hurdles ground-mounted solar energy systems face in residential neighborhoods at a time when rooftop systems have become an increasingly familiar part of the manmade landscape. According to the state’s Clean Energy Center, the number of solar energy systems statewide grew to 2,600 in 2010, the last year for which figures are available, 20 times more than just three years before. But if you build your system on the ground, town halls tend to regard it as the kind of problem structure that can interfere with your neighbors’ rights.
Tim Roper, regional sales manager for solar service provider SolarCity of Marlborough, said that some ground-mounted projects succeed in winning variances from zoning rules such as a required setback, but not if a neighbor opposes the plan.
“The expectation is if no variance is needed, the permit will be granted. But if there’s opposition from neighbors,” Roper added, “probably not.”
He cites a case in Marshfield a few years ago in which a homeowner failed to win approval to build a solar array in his yard because a neighbor objected. Narice Casper of Marshfield remembers the case because she was on the zoning board then. The project failed, she said, because “[the applicant] didn’t have the setback.”
In Cowham’s case, once his solar installation was up, a neighbor complained of the project’s size — 16 feet tall and 50 feet wide — to the city’s inspection office. Cowham eventually won permission to build a smaller version of the solar project, but it cost him more time and money.
Cowham said he “did everything right” before beginning his project last fall. After consulting the building office, he filled out an application for an electricity hookup describing the project as ground-mounted solar panels and received a permit.
“At first they were nice,” Cowham said. “They said ‘no problem.’ Then everything changed. . . . When I went back [after the stop work order] and said I wanted to apply for a building permit, they said I couldn’t get it from them. They said, ‘We’ve changed all that.’ They said I had to go to the zoning board.’”
Officials don’t dispute this account but say the city has a legitimate interest in regulating what people build on their property.
“There is a right to enjoy your property,” said Quincy Planning Department director Dennis Harrington. That right can be infringed upon if a neighbor builds something so big and so close you can’t avoid seeing it from your own property. Like most communities, Quincy has rules on the height of accessory structures and the setback distance from property lines.
But City Councilor Kevin Coughlin went further after the complaint about Cowham’s project, proposing a rule requiring all solar projects (including rooftop panels) to receive a permit from the Planning Board. When city officials called that too burdensome, Coughlin revised his proposal to say only ground-mounted arrays would need Planning Board approval.
Harrington balked at that idea as well, saying the expense of seeking a special permit from the Planning Board, typically costing thousands of dollars in engineering studies, would discourage all such projects. Harrington said that building code rules for accessory structures — height restrictions, setback rules, and screening by a fence or plantings from neighbor’s sight — would be adequate for ground-mounted arrays while leaving the permitting in the hands of the building department.
Coughlin said recently his main point is that neighbors need to be notified. “We just want to have a public process for ground-mounted installations that’s open and transparent,” he said.
Following advice from Marty Aikens, chairman of Quincy’s Zoning Board of Appeals, Cowham eventually earned zoning board approval for a smaller structure at 6 feet high. The rebuilding cost him an additional $5,000.
But Cowham said the negative response to his project from neighbors and officials smacked of “fear of something new.”
“Why is solar something to be afraid of?” he asked. “It’s not a bad system. It’s just glass. It’s a plus for the economy. It’s 100 percent made in America.”
After a couple months of operation, Cowham said he now gets negative electric bills from his power company and applies the credit from his electric bill to his gas bill to reduce heating costs. But his solar array is about more than saving one householder money, he said. It’s about setting an example for the whole community.
“This country was built on courage and hope,” he said.
Robert Knox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.