WINCHESTER — Home and business owners are often encouraged to reduce monthly electrical expenses by installing solar panels. Problem is, there's nothing in Winchester's zoning ordinance that says where and how local property owners should install the panels.
That's about to change. The city's Planning Commission is reviewing a series of proposed text amendments that officials hope will soon shine a light on any areas of confusion.
Winchester Zoning Administrator Alfredo Gutierrez Velasquez said there are already solar panels on several city homes and businesses, all of which are legal but were installed without any guidance or oversight from the city's zoning ordinance. Moving forward, officials want property owners in each of the city's zoning districts to know exactly where on their land or buildings the systems can be installed.
"There is a valid need for the city to define and establish zoning districts and additional regulations for solar energy systems," Gutierrez Velasquez said.
As proposed, the new regulations would allow solar energy systems as an accessory use in every zoning district in the city, provided the panels are only powering buildings on the properties where they are installed, Gutierrez Velasquez said. Broader uses, such as a manufacturer that wants to build a solar energy system to power production facilities at another site, would be allowed as principal uses in Winchester's Highway Commercial (B-2), Commercial Industrial (CM-1), Limited Industrial (M-1), Intensive Industrial (M-2) and Education, Institution and Public Use (EIP) zoning districts.
The proposed amendments would also specify where solar panels should be installed on a residential or business property. Currently, Gutierrez Velasquez said, there is nothing on the books to say "what part of a structure they can be placed on, where in the yard they can be placed, the size of them."
If the text amendments are approved, solar energy systems could not be installed in locations visible from public rights of way, such as a home's front yard, unless the panels are mounted on a structure's roof. Also, panels could not extend beyond a roof's edge or encroach on a neighboring property, and if systems are not installed on a roof, panels and other components could not project more than 12 inches from the structures where they are mounted.
Additionally, Gutierrez Velasquez said, property owners in zoning districts with a Historic Winchester (HW) or Corridor Enhancement (CE) overlay would have to obtain a certificate of appropriateness from the city before any panels could be installed.
In all cases, owners of private solar energy systems in Winchester would be connected to the public power grid operated by Shenandoah Valley Electric Cooperative and, if approved by the utility, allowed to sell to SVEC any excess electricity produced by their systems.
"I'm in favor of solar everywhere," Planning Commission Vice Chairwoman Lacey Burnett said. "The easier we can make it for people to incentivize, the better."
The Planning Commission is expected to continue its discussion of the proposed text amendments during its meeting at 3 p.m. today in Rouss City Hall.