Sam Saltonstall is a member of the Neighborhood United Church of Christ in Bath, which is holding a series of informational meetings on the use of clean energy. To that end, the church plans this spring to install solar panels on its roof. Alex Lear / The Forecaster

A small church in downtown Bath will be able to install solar panels on the roof, following a change in the city’s rules unanimously backed by the planning board last week.

The Neighborhood United Church of Christ on the corner of Washington and Centre streets in Bath plans to install 20 solar panels on the South side of the roof that faces Centre Street.

Church member Sam Saltonstall, who helped spearhead the effort to get the rule changed, said the roughly $23,000 solar array is expected to power the majority of the building, saving the nonprofit about $9,000 on its electric bill over a five-year period.

“We have strong convictions about the need to, on a local level, do what we can to mitigate climate change,” said Saltonstall. “We have no illusions about the enormity of the task.”

Getting the rooftop panels approved marks the finale in a three-year effort to make the building more energy efficient, said Saltonstall. The church previously improved its insulation and added a propane heat pump.

The church sits in Bath’s Historic Overlay District, meaning it required special approval from the planning board to install the panels. The Bath historic district stretches between Leeman Highway and Beacon Street and encompasses Front and Washington streets. It contains centuries-old buildings and is a tourist draw.

Built between 1957-1960, the church building was previously a gas station, an art gallery, an auto supply store, and a steakhouse before becoming a place of worship, according to Saltonstall.

Bath’s previous rules for building in the historic district allowed for solar panels, as long as they wouldn’t be visible from the street or sidewalk. The church, however, needed to install the panels on the side of the roof that faces Centre Street in order to collect enough sunlight.

The planning board first approached the city council with a proposed change to the city’s rule about solar panels in the historic district late last year, but councilors kicked it back because they felt it was too vague. The board revised the language, then returned to city council, who unanimously approved it over the summer. That change allowed the church to apply — and get approved — to install the panels last week.

City planner Ben Averill said the church now needs additional electrical permitting from the Code Enforcement Office before the panels are installed, but the church will not need to return to the planning board or city council.

Church member and Bath resident Michelle August said she’s proud the church “stuck with it” through the arduous rule-change process.

“There was a time in which we thought our church would join a solar farm, and I was adamant that I want these panels on that building,” said August. “I want people to see that we’re green, our building is green, and Bath cares.”

Church member Mary Beth Sullivan said adding solar panels to the building isn’t going to single-handedly stop climate change or reverse the damage already done, but installing them is “our expression of faith that we can take action and begin to change the world we’re living in.”

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