City councilors are considering tightening restrictions on solar projects in Augusta after residents complained about thousands of solar panels being installed by the state at two of Interstate 95 interchanges in the city. Crews began working on the project, which did not require local approval, in September. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file

AUGUSTA — Resident complaints about state solar arrays being constructed at two of Augusta’s Interstate 95 interchanges have city officials considering once again rewriting local solar development rules.

Those rules don’t, and won’t, apply to the projects causing such consternation by installing thousands of solar panels in the highly visible “cloverleaf” areas at exits 109 and 112 in Augusta. The solar farm installations by contractors working for the state did not undergo any local review and are not subject to local zoning rules because they are within the right of way of Interstate 95.

The interstate is part of the federal transportation system, which requires uniformity for the traveling public, according to a spokesman for the Maine Department of Transportation. Projects occurring within its right of way are exempt from complying with whatever local regulations and zoning requirements municipalities it passes through may have.

But they are apparently not exempt from scorn, or at least concern, from Augusta residents. City councilors said numerous constituents have contacted them, after seeing the state’s solar development take shape, to express concerns about the proliferation of solar farms in the city, including that they are unsightly and are taking up large swaths of scenic fields and other areas of the city that might otherwise be developed with much-needed housing.

So councilors, fully aware any changes to city regulations won’t impact the underway state projects, proposed to form a committee to again review the city’s regulations for solar development, to at least tighten restrictions and potentially limit the number of solar developments elsewhere in the city.

“The fact that development has happened on these cloverleafs is what has brought a tremendous amount of community discussion and interest,” said Ward 2 Councilor Kevin Judkins, who had asked for the discussion of a moratorium that took place at Thursday night’s council meeting. “Even though we can’t do anything about that development, that made it very clear (residents) are concerned about where these things go and how they are done.”


A rendering shows where solar arrays will be installed near exits 109 and 112 of Interstate 95 in Augusta. Courtesy Maine Department of Transportation

The move comes only a year after the city adopted revisions to its solar development rules, following a 180-day moratorium to allow officials time to craft the new rules meant to improve the appearance of solar developments by requiring fencing and natural buffers to shield them from public view.

Judkins and some other councilors initially spoke in favor of adopting another moratorium, to provide time for the city to consider adding regulations that could guide where solar development can take place or potentially even place a cap on the number of acres of solar development allowed in the city. But after learning from city officials there are currently no proposed solar projects pending review by the Planning Board, he agreed the city may not need to adopt a moratorium as that work can take place without one in place.

Steve Langsdorf, city attorney, said if a new solar development is proposed, the city could then adopt a moratorium to delay consideration of that project while officials complete their work revising ordinances.

Langsdorf said the city could even, if councilors wish, adopt regulations on how solar facilities already approved and operating in the city function, giving the city authority to regulate projects that were previously approved by the Planning Board before the newer regulations were in place, similar to how the city now regulates mineral extraction operations in gravel pits.

“The regulatory ordinances could apply to all solar projects that exist in the city of Augusta, so it’s not just a one-shot deal,” Langsdorf said. “So if there are other things we think are necessary, including buffering and aesthetic standards and so forth, even after they’ve been built, we can require some kind of licensing or we look into additional regulatory approval. We (can) look into how we do something to improve the projects that have already been built. And also as an ongoing way of looking at whatever issues may be coming up with solar.”

Langsdorf warned councilors that route will require a lot of work, as the city’s process of developing its mineral extraction rules to regulate controversial blasting in quarries also did.


Matt Nazar, development director for the city, said there are no solar projects pending before the city but there is one potential project about which a developer has made informal inquiries. He said five solar projects have been approved by the Planning Board but are not yet under construction. Four solar developments have been constructed, which were approved before the city’s newer rules and its additional requirements for buffering applied.

Langsdorf said to enact a moratorium on solar projects city councilors would need to declare that “serious public harm” could occur without one.

At-Large Councilor Abigail St. Valle said while she agrees the city should review its solar ordinance she does not agree a moratorium is needed, especially since solar developments can help combat climate change.

“Climate change is a thing, and if we’re talking about irreparable public harm, climate change doesn’t depend on zip code or area code, it’s coming for all of us, and it’s going to be the next generation’s problem,” she said. “This is the science we have, and we have solar we can use today, and I think we should use it. But, we can be smart about it. So, I’d agree with a review but not a moratorium.”

At-Large Councilor Heather Pouliot said a review of the city’s solar rules should include seeking to encourage solar panels to be located on the roofs of buildings, instead of taking up a lot of land “so there are ways to have this solar power that is really great that is not in someone’s field or backyard.”

Ward 4 Councilor Eric Lind said there was a lack of communication, between the city and state, about the interstate projects, which he said would not meet the city’s aesthetic standards because it lacks adequate visual buffering.

Judkins said a committee should be established to review the city’s solar rules and city councilors, Planning Board members and the city’s economic development staff should be involved.

Mayor Mark O’Brien said there seemed to be a consensus that another look needs to be taken at solar regulation in Augusta so he would work on forming a committee to do so.

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