Saying 12 proposals for utility-scale solar projects have overwhelmed the ability of the planning board and the two-day-a-week planner, the Town Council on Monday night passed an emergency, temporary moratorium on all but rooftop solar development.
In its first full meeting since voters chose several new members, the council voted 3-to-1 to pass the emergency ordinance affecting ground-mounted, solar photovoltaic projects.
Town Planner Ashley Hahn-Sweet handed out 11-by-17-inch spreadsheets to the council that listed 11 proposed solar projects. Another came in Friday, she said, after the sheets had been photocopied.
How to regulate solar projects has dominated discussions for at least a year. The Planning Board began in 2017 to write comprehensive rules that would govern solar projects larger than rooftop installations.
While the Town Council repeatedly sent the Planning Board back to the drawing board on their solar zoning rules, a renewable-energy developer, Mark DePasquale of Green Development, also proposed a change in the zoning ordinance. His plan, referred to as the Green plan, affected 15 specific properties where the company planned to install enough solar arrays to feed a new substation.
The Town Council at that time, whose majority favored the Green plan, adopted DePasquale’s ordinance, over the objections of townspeople who filed into the Metcalf Middle School cafeteria twice last summer and fall.
Then when the Planning Board submitted its proposal, called Solar Draft 8 — referred to as Solar 8 for short — the council adopted it, although one council member realized he had accidentally voted for Solar 8 when he meant to vote against it.
At the revote, the Green rules were reinstated. Then came the election, and instead of three pro-Green council members calling the shots, the council changed to four members favoring Solar 8 and one of the former Green backers.
The Planning Department, meanwhile, was getting applications that had to be considered under changing rules, with different requirements.
Hahn-Sweet’s chart indicated which rules were in effect when each project was proposed, and where the project was in the process.
Just keeping track of where each project was under which set of rules, she said, took up 90 percent of her time, and as a part-time planner, she works only two days a week.
Council President Calvin A. Ellis read the emergency moratorium out loud to about 150 people in the Wawaloam Elementary School cafeteria.
Daniel W. Patterson, formerly the council vice president and now the only member of the pro-Green majority who got reelected, asked what the emergency was. The moratorium’s wording said that proposed solar projects “pose serious threats to the public health, safety and welfare of the residents of Exeter through the potential overdevelopment of areas of town in a manner that conflicts with the town’s comprehensive plan.”
Hahn-Sweet and Planning Board Chairman Michael DeFrancesco said the threat to municipal resources was that the 12 major solar proposals overwhelmed the town’s ability to consider them, especially with conflicting zoning rules.
The moratorium is for 60 days. In that time, DeFrancesco said, the Planning Board will have submitted Solar 9 for the council’s consideration, and will have been able to untangle what each current project needs to go forward.
The council passed the moratorium 3 to 1, with Patterson the sole vote against it.