CONCORD, N.H. — In Trudy Mott-Smith’s opinion, solar panels are beautiful things. She’s proud of the array that will soon sprout up in front of her church on Pleasant Street. It’s a symbol of sustainability and a suggestion that others aspire to do the same, she said.

But as the project manager for the Unitarian Universalist Church’s bid to install two rows of 50 panels each in its front yard, Mott-Smith learned that not everyone shares in her belief.

The city’s zoning board members, in particular, approved her project only when the church agreed to shield the 5-foot-3-inch panels from the road using shrubbery.

“They thought it was ugly,” she said. “Their word for that is ‘not in keeping with the neighborhood.’ ”

So the panels will be installed – perhaps as soon as next month – and then they’ll be hidden behind junipers, rhododendrons and arborvitae.

“Where there used to be a church – which is familiar to everyone who uses Pleasant Street – there’s going to be a sudden wall of green. … We were not what you would call extremely happy” with the condition, she said.


And although her church received the approvals it needed, Mott-Smith said she’s not done thinking about Concord’s solar ordinance – or, rather, the lack thereof.

She hopes to take the positive references to renewable energy in the city’s master plan and put them into practice with policies that make life easier for residents who want to install ground-mounted solar arrays.

Learning that there seemed to be no such effort formally underway, the 81-year-old Mott-Smith said: “When I get done, there will be someone working on it.”

It was last March when the church’s congregation approved construction of the solar project, which is supposed save about $5,000 a year in energy costs. At the time, Mott-Smith figured that the panels would be online by the end of the year.

But the church’s flat roof is too weak to bear the panels’ weight, and the memorial garden out back couldn’t be torn up.

That left only the front yard available, which presented a zoning hurdle for the church to overcome. It was first heard in August and conditionally approved in October.


Craig Walker, the city’s zoning administrator, explained that any “accessory structure” in the front yard – be it a shed, garage or solar array – would have triggered the zoning board hearings that the church underwent.

“It was nothing specific to a solar array,” he said.

“The board in that case was concerned with the aesthetics of having an accessory structure in the front yard. That Pleasant Street corridor is an extremely important aesthetic entrance to the city.”

Mott-Smith pointed to the city’s master plan, saying that it uses words like “encourage,” “promote” and “maximize” in conjunction with renewable energy and conservation.

Far from hiding solar panels, she said, “You should get a brownie point if the reason you need a variance relates closely to sustainable energy.”

But Walker noted that the ordinance is supposed to maintain “content neutrality” while accomplishing the goals of the master plan.

“To state that one type of structure in general has different privileges than other types of structures, it becomes inconsistent and it becomes difficult to enforce,” he said.

In the absence of any solar-specific ordinance, the people in charge of the approvals process are left to make a weighty decision themselves, said Richard Uchida, a real estate attorney who represented the church.

“The zoning board felt it needed to sort of make it up as it went and not set any precedent, while Concord puts together a solar panel ordinance,” Uchida said.

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