AUGUSTA — Rules increasing the visual abatement requirements for large solar farms debuted to a mostly positive reception Tuesday from the Planning Board and representatives of two solar development companies.

In August, city councilors enacted a 180-day moratorium on any new large solar energy projects anywhere in the city. Councilors said numerous constituents had contacted them to complain about the appearance of existing solar projects, and concerned that so many were built and proposed to be built. Councilors asked the Planning Board to review those concerns and come back with recommended ordinance changes to address them.

On Tuesday night, Development Director Matt Nazar offered a series of changes meant to make large solar farms less visible to passers-by.

Proposed changes included requirements that each ground-mounted large scale solar facility limit its visual impact to the greatest extent possible. Among the options are fencing 7-feet high, which meets the minimum height required by the national electrical code, that blends into the environment around it; fencing that allows small wildlife such as raccoons and rabbits to pass underneath it; plantings along fence lines to provide a visual buffer; and dirt berms high enough to shield much of the solar panels from view.

“The standards I’ve proposed would tend to make the fence as invisible as possible,” Nazar said. “One of the concerns that we heard at the council level seemed to focus on that chain link fence that surrounds the existing project on Church Hill Road as the visual element that catches the eye.

“There are going to be some of these projects where it’s going to be impossible to make them invisible from the road. But you can certainly soften the look,” he added. “If vegetation covers the majority of the racking or the panels and you only see the top of it, it’s going to make a significant difference.”

Board members expressed support for the changes. They did decline to make more stringent regulations for the main gateway roads into the city or limit the total number of solar projects, which Nazar said they could consider. Planning Board member Catherine Cobb said if the proposed visual impact standards are adopted then all solar projects would be required to be more visually attractive, and something of which the city could be proud.

At Tuesday’s meeting, representatives of two solar companies said the suggested changes seemed, in general, prudent and reasonable.

Nate Niles, director of development for ReVision Energy, said the company — which has a solar project in the early stages of development in the Riggs Brook area of the city — generally supports the proposed changes. He said requiring solar projects to have buffer areas around them is certainly preferable to banning them or limiting where they could be located.

“By integrating these sort of buffering components I think is a great way of avoiding outright banning solar in certain areas or districts,” Niles said. “It’s the plantings and buffering that add that aesthetic touch.”

When city councilors enacted the moratorium, some of them expressed concern that so many solar projects could come to Augusta and reduce the amount of land that’d be available for housing. Councilors had recently had a presentation on how the lack of affordable housing in the city is a crisis.

But Nazar said Tuesday that solar farms occupy less than 1% of the 34,500 acres of land in the city.

“Major expansions are unlikely to have a significant impact on developable land, particularly inside the sewer and water service area,” he said.

Nazar noted most affordable housing projects require public water and sewer, while most solar projects are developed on land outside of areas that typically have those services.

Planning Board member A. Delaine Nye said that seems like a nonissue. She said the city should not discourage the development of solar energy, which she said brings in tax dollars and helps the environment, out of concern it could use up land that might otherwise be developed with affordable housing.

A public hearing, to gather input on the proposed changes before the Planning Board votes on them and sends them to city councilors for review, is planned Sept. 28. The board will make a recommendation, but the final say on whether and how to change the city’s land use ordinance rests with the Augusta City Council.

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