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White Plains Council Amends Solar Energy Systems Regs

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A comprehensive solar energy systems ordinance was unanimously amended last week by the White Plains Common Council. The ordinance is expected to impact future solar panel installations capable of generating more than 1,000 kilowatts of electricity.

Solar panels convert sunlight into energy used to generate electricity, decreasing the reliance on electricity generated from combustible fossil fuels mainly responsible for climate change.

Since last year, the contentious issue over installing solar panels in the city drew numerous comments and criticisms from residents, especially those opposed to a plan to build a 282,000-square-foot solar carport at 1133 Westchester Avenue in White Plains. That proposal was turned down in Feb.

The newly amended ordinance includes regulations that specify dimensions for solar panels, solar energy equipment and solar parking canopies. Parking canopies can only exist on impervious surfaces such as a parking lot and on top of a parking structure or garage. Ground-mounted solar farms and pole-mounted solar arrays are not permitted. 

City departments reviewing new solar system energy applications will consider the installation’s height, noise, visual impact, planned landscaping including tree removal. Responding to past concerns about visual impacts, the ordinance now requires solar canopies and installations be shielded by greenery.

Solar parking canopies producing under 1,000 kilowatts of electricity located in one and two-family districts must be on a minimum two-acre lot with a minimum 30-foot setback from all lot lines.  Solar canopies in residential districts can have a maximum height of 15 feet. In a non-residential district, they can be up to 25 feet.

If larger solar parking canopies supplying more than 1,000 kilowatts of electricity are next to a one and-two-family district, the amended ordinance now requires a minimum lot area of five acres, a 175-foot setback from the front and an additional 50-foot side and rear yard setback.

The ordinance now provides future protection by requiring a decommissioning plan by solar installation owners should they go bankrupt or sell the property.

After voting, all Common Council members commented on the proactive and environmental intent of the amended ordinance and how it will allow the city to rely less on energy produced by fossil fuels to combat the impacts of climate change.

“We are striking the balance by offering more opportunities for being sustainable as well as preserving the needs of our residents,” said Councilwoman Jennifer Puja.

Addressing residents’ input in the public hearing process, Councilwoman Nadine Hunt Robinson said, “I’ve heard all comments of various individuals who came to comment about this ordinance. White Plains has always been a city that has led the way and I am comfortable with us leading in the area of solar with this amendment,” she said.

Hunt-Robinson reiterated that all solar parking canopy applications will be reviewed by the Common Council. “Nothing is going to happen automatically and will have to get site approval from us.”

White Plains Mayor Thomas Roach spoke at length about how codifying the ordinance would allow for more sustainable solar energy to be utilized in the city.

“We are in a climate crisis and we are at a point where we either take action or the future is very bleak for our children and their children,” Roach said. “When we have an opportunity to do something that does not involve the combustion of fossil fuels, I feel we have to take action. Our generation is the last one that has a chance to change the curve and we here in White Plains are taking action.”

Last month, White Plains completed construction of solar canopies, solar rooftop and solar ground-mount installations at several sites. In total, these sites are expected to generate 8,100 megawatts of clean energy annually that could power more than 700 homes. Installations are at four parking garages, Gillie Park, the Ebersole Ice Rink, Gedney Way Recycling Facility, Water Storage Site, the Sanitation Complex, the Recycling Facility and the Shapham Place parking garage.

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