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Windsor school, town officials battle over solar array


Windsor’s desire to embrace green, energy-saving practices could be tested in a controversy involving a private school’s application to install a solar array next to its campus.

Windsor planning department officials recently rejected the Sonoma Country Day School’s application to install the photovoltaic panels, saying it is incompatible with the zoning on the parcel.

“I view this request as an encroachment of the school use into the Town’s Light Industrial zone,” Planning Director Jim Bergman wrote in a letter explaining his decision. “I would like to note that this decision has been difficult due to our ardent support of PV (photovoltaic) systems.”

School officials are taking an appeal to the Planning Commission on Tuesday and are hoping the town’s love of solar power will eclipse the zoning and land use handbook.

“We’d love to get this going and start realizing the instructional potential for it and the cost savings from it,” School Principal Brad Weaver said Friday.

He said the solar panels are part of the school’s environmental stewardship program for creating a more energy-efficient campus. And it fits into the environmental science curriculum.

“It’s there to offer an example and role model to our students,” he said.

The 250-student, kindergarten-through-eighth-grade school located off Aviation Boulevard sits on unincorporated land, immediately adjacent to Windsor’s southern boundary. But the three-acre parcel where the school wants to build the 37,000-square-foot solar array is within Windsor city limits.

The school wants to enter into a power purchase agreement with SolarCity, a national company that builds, leases and operates solar arrays. It’s projected to generate enough electricity to save the school $100,000 in the first five years and $250,000 over a decade.

Planning Director Bergman said such privately-owned ground-mounted, photo-voltaic systems are not permitted in a light-industrial district. Exceptions are made for publicly-owned utilities, he noted, because “they benefit the larger industrial zone or city,” versus private facilities “serving a limited offsite use.”

He added that the school encroachment into the zone could be detrimental to future development on the land. He said the parcel is conveniently located next to a rail line which makes it even more compatible with industrial use.

Andy Gustavson, a Santa Rosa land-use consultant hired by the school, said the solar array will be similar to something operated by a public utility.

And he said it provides a community good. ”It reduces the school’s reliance on the public power grid,” he said. “It reduces some of the demand and allows a broader network to serve others more efficiently.”

Bergman suggested the school put the array on its campus or on other land it owns nearby. “The applicant is proposing the current site because it appears to be the least expensive,” he said.

But school officials said they dismissed other sites for a variety of reasons, including wetland impacts and trenching costs. And rooftop sites were considered too expensive.

Weaver, the principal, is hopeful the planning commission will overturn the planning director’s ruling and approve the school’s application.

“I think there’s some room for some discussion here and seeing if we can work this out,” he said.

If necessary, he said the school will appeal to the Town Council.

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com.

One Response to “Windsor school, town officials battle over solar array”

  1. Graeme Wellington says:

    This school needs to learn that their solar array will cost them about 30 years of PG&E bills to install. Think of the savings? Except for the fact that the panels don’t last that long. Think about learning how much maintenance and cleaning these things require to work properly too. Education abounds in this stuff. The array the size of the school might generate enough to operate a few lights as long as the array doesn’t block the light from the sun that normally illuminates the school. And what about discovering the vandalism costs? You don’t think the kids are going to be throwing rocks at these fragile things when they realize how important this stuff is to the teachers. Something like this can’t affect insurance costs, can it?

    So… why is Windsor standing in the way of all this learning?