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Commercial Solar Panel Ordinance Passes
Written by Mary Gibbs Kershner, Correspondent
2024-07-02

Washington Twp. to Regulate Locations

 

            After months of research by Washington Township Board of Supervisors Solicitor Joan London and spirited discussion by township residents, the board of supervisors on Thursday passed an ordinance regulating commercial solar panels in the township. 

            Solar panels on private property will continue to be permitted.  The ordinance limits where commercial solar panels can be placed, including the prohibition of commercial solar panels in watershed conservation districts. 

            Commercial solar panels are prohibited in flood hazard areas identified by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) mapping, wetland and buffer areas, riparian buffers extending 25 feet from a wetland or body of water, slopes over 15%, and legal easements. 

            On wooded lots the maximum area to be cut and cleared is 30% of the wooded lot for commercial solar panels. 

            Solar panels are permitted in Light Industrial (LI), Commercial (C), General Industrial (GI), Quarry (Q), and Agricultural (A) districts by special exception.

            A special exception requires a hearing in front of the Washington Township Zoning Hearing Board, a quasi-judicial board independent of the elected board of supervisors. 

            Agriculture can be permitted between solar panels but with restrictions. 

            Commercial solar panels must be located on at least a five-acre parcel with a maximum coverage of no more than 50% of the tract.  When the solar panel's useful life is finished they must be decommissioned.  Financial security must be posted prior to solar panel construction at an approved site.

            In a related matter, the township appointed Michael Gombar as the Washington Township zoning hearing board special conflict counsel for the solar energy ordinance and any valid challenge to the ordinance.

            Large landowners in the still rural township who would be able to utilize the revenue from commercial solar panels will find their properties, for the most part, excluded by the ordinance. 

            Property owners with large tracts of land pay extremely high taxes, but do not profit as they would if they developed their land.  Many have a commitment to agricultural pursuits as well as "green energy." 

            Several property owners researched commercial solar panels to discover they do not harm the environment.  When their usefulness is over, the land on which they stood is unchanged. 

            Dan Stauffer, a township planning commission member, spoke for residents of the township who were opposed to the ordinance.  Stauffer, who had done extensive research on solar panels noted the only viable place in the entire township for solar panels is near the Barto electric substation.

            There is very little industrial land in the township, the quarry is mostly used, and agricultural land in the township is, for the most part, preserved and cannot be used for solar panels.  He warned the supervisors that because they have ignored the caution of the Berks County Planning Commission to not make the ordinance too restrictive, the township is creating exclusionary zoning. 

            Stauffer told the supervisors that if the ordinance is deemed in a legal challenge to be exclusionary, the supervisors can be held personally and financially liable for the township's costs if the township loses a court challenge. 

            Stauffer noted the Berks County Planning Commission recommended a zoning overlay district in the watershed conservation district.  He remarked that the township newsletter mentioned methods to combat global warming and the changes it is creating to weather and noted the newsletter recommended planting trees and cutting down on fossil fuels. 

            Stauffer said he has planted over 10,000 trees on his 125-acre farm and created natural meadows.  If he could utilize 14 acres of his property for solar panels he could do more to eliminate fossil fuels.  He challenged the board of supervisors on what they have done personally to combat global warming.

            Township resident Joseph Kincaide, III sent a letter in strong opposition to the ordinance.  Kincaide noted the supervisors failed to recognize township residents' opposition to the ordinance and the expertise of the Berks County Planning Commission.  He called it exclusionary zoning. 

            James Longacre explained his opposition to the ordinance because solar panels are not permitted in the watershed conservation district. 

            Fangyuan Ge observed the township is becoming so restrictive in its ordinances that it will decrease property values.  The restrictive ordinances will cause potential investors to avoid the area. 

            Another resident noted his concern that a certain supervisor is using his position to create an ordinance based on his personal bias against commercial solar panels. 

            Township resident William Piersol warned the board of supervisors that residents who voted them into office will vote them out in the coming election.


 

 

 

 

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