Sometimes good news floats by unnoticed. Recently, the Bath City Council adopted an amendment to the Land Use Code which makes installing rooftop solar a more viable option for residents, nonprofits and businesses within the City’s historic district. The Code’s “Alternate Energy Devices and Appendages” section for the Zone did not previously allow solar visible from any public right of way. This outright ban of visible solar was more restrictive than the Department of Interior’s national standards for solar in historic districts.

Thanks to the amendment just passed, visible solar panels will now be an option for many in the historic district, enabling them to harvest clean energy from the sun. The new language lays out certain requirements, but properly sized and sited, and paired with a tight building envelope and an electricity-powered heat pump to handle winter cold and summer heat, a rooftop solar array can lower the building owner’s energy bill to less than $20 every month of the year.

Amending the code was proposed in the spring of 2020 by the Neighborhood United Church of Christ located at 798 Washington St. This small congregation had set its sights on putting panels on their roof over three years ago. But first they got an energy audit, air sealed the building envelope, added substantial amounts of insulation in the attic, installed LED lighting and purchased a mini split heat pump which heats and cools the interior space. Much of that work was performed by volunteers.

“There was no money in our budget for any of this,” comments Co-Pastor Holly Reid. “We proceeded step-wise, raising much of what we needed with two silent auctions, our annual plant sales, concerts featuring members and friends who donated their services, and donations. When it came down to funding the balance still needed for the solar, we found four generous lenders who put us over the top. They will be paid back over five years, in part with savings on our utility bills and in part with more fundraisers.”

But when the permit was applied for in April of 2020, it was turned down due to the historic district restrictions on visible solar. The Neighborhood decided to pursue an amendment to the Land Use Code, paid the $275 fee, wrote up a draft and submitted it to the Planning Board. The Board tackled the challenge of improving the language submitted over a series of meetings, held two public hearings, and eventually came up with an amendment that satisfied the City Council, which approved it unanimously last week.

One month later, the new solar language will become law. The church will apply for a permit, and if it’s granted will move forward with its installation. Looking ahead, solar team members at the church would like to become an information resource for others in the Bath area looking to get off of climate change causing fossil fuels and harness clean energy for their homes.

Asked what’s next for the church, Co-Pastor Bill Bliss commented, ”We’ve learned not to take anything for granted with this effort, but we have another ‘impossible dream’ we are hoping to make a reality for our neighbors. We want to turn the asphalt parking lot that surrounds our building into an attractive ‘Little Eden Park’, a resting spot for passersby.” Given the enthusiasm for both the solar project and the park among congregation members, perhaps more changes at 798 Washington St. will soon be afoot.

Sam Saltonstall is a Covenant Partner of the Neighborhood United Church of Christ.

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