Solar, wind turbines, geothermal, biomass – all are alternative energy sources expected to take off in the future. And in order to be ready for that future, Upper Dublin Township is working on an ordinance to encourage their use while setting up regulations to keep both users and their neighbors happy.
“We need to have guidance on the books as alternative sources are becoming more common,” said Alan Flenner, an attorney and engineer who has worked with the township on the ordinance, at the township’s Feb. 21 planning commission meeting.
The draft ordinance would permit the alternative energy systems in all zoning districts as an accessory use, subject to zoning restrictions for such uses unless specified otherwise. Primary use would be as a source of power for the user, though excess power could occasionally be sold to a local utility.
Among the regulations in the draft ordinance, geothermal would be permitted only as a closed loop system using nontoxic, biodegradable circulating fluids. Solar energy systems would be subject to height restrictions and require a 3-foot setback from roof edges, with ground-mounted systems considered impervious coverage, as such not to exceed 25 percent of maximum building coverage.
Wind turbines are subject to various height, setback, noise and safety restrictions, with transmission lines underground and the towers painted white, off-white or gray. Biomass – an outdoor wood-fired boiler, would not be permitted on lots less than 2 acres and be set back at least 150 feet from rear lot lines and 500 feet from the nearest occupied building not on the lot where the boiler is located. The units are subject to safety and stack height restrictions and must have pipes and electrical connections buried underground. Only clean wood may be used and the boilers may not be operated between May 1 and Sept. 30.
Alternative energy concerns
Concerns expressed by planning commission members at the February meeting focused mainly on ensuring the systems did not pose safety or annoyance factors for neighboring properties.
Solar panels can produce glare. Wind turbines might be noisy, and wood-fired boilers generate smoke. All three might have safety as well as aesthetic-related issues. Geothermal is underground, but needs space and there could be environmental concerns.
Some township residences already use solar, geothermal and wood-burning systems as energy sources, but there have not been any applications for wind turbines yet, planning commission Chairman Wes Wolf noted.
“You need to keep safety in mind, but try not to make it too restrictive,” Flenner said. “You should be cognizant of neighbors concerns, but should promote these [alternative energy sources].”
For geothermal systems, there was general agreement to have 10-foot setbacks, the same as that required for accessory uses such as sheds and garages. Lot area would be self-regulating, as there has to be enough room to install a geothermal system, which Flenner described as “essentially a heat pump underground.”
The draft ordinance does not permit placement of any above-ground components in front yards or along street frontage. It also requires all alternative systems to be decommissioned if nonfunctional or inoperative for a year.
Commission member Hilary Hartman said she found that “onerous” and that it would be a deterrent, but Flenner said it was “not up to those who might be opposed for aesthetic purposes. If a solar panel is not functioning, why not require its removal,” he said.
“We’ll leave the decommissioning in for now,” Wolf said.
There was also some discussion on making wind turbines a conditional use, with commission member Wendi Kapustin suggesting they are “more potentially impactive on neighbors” visually and due to noise.
The small ones aren’t noisy, Flenner said, and decibel restrictions could be written into the ordinance.
Referring to another township’s ordinance, Wolf said he would like to see the turbines restricted to being mounted on monopoles.
“I don’t want wind turbines if they’re not going to work,” Wolf said, noting the township is not in a prevailing wind area. “They are the biggest eyesore.”
But Flenner said “visual impact won’t withstand a court challenge.”
Three or four homes in the township use outdoor wood-burners for heat, according to Code Enforcement Officer Rick Barton. While the ordinance calls for a minimum lot size of 2 acres, two of the existing ones are probably on lots less than that and one is also used for hot water, which would not conform to date of operation restriction.
“Complaints [that have been made] are that they are not burning clean wood, so it gives off fumes or smoke. Clean wood is a requirement” in the proposed ordinance, Barton said.
“I don’t want to encourage these in a suburban area,” Wolf said.
Since not a lot of properties in Upper Dublin are 2 acres or more, the 2-acre minimum lot size would serve as a restriction, Flenner said.
“You don’t want an ordinance that could be challenged,” he added.
“The township’s biggest concern is that it doesn’t bother people,” Flenner said of the alternative systems. “People want to use alternative energy and the township wants to allow that.”
No specific date has been set for a vote on the ordinance by the board of commissioners.