Lest a shadow of doubt exist, St. Louis Park leaders want property owners to know they hope to clear the way for more solar power in the city.

The St. Louis Park City Council voted unanimously Jan. 3 in favor of an ordinance that a city report says would “make it clear that solar energy systems are permitted throughout the city.” A final vote is scheduled Tuesday, Jan. 18.

The city’s desire for a better rating from the SolSmart national program that recognizes governments that promote solar power is helping to drive the changes to city code, which would also spell out how the city will handle solar panels on property.

Last year, SolSmart gave St. Louis Park a silver designation, up from a bronze, after the city demonstrated that it created “a streamlined permitting process that does not hinder issuing permits for solar energy systems, and for providing information and encouragement for solar energy systems,” according to a city staff report.

To achieve the gold designation, the highest SolSmart provides, the city must explicitly state that solar energy systems are permitted as an accessory use in its major zoning districts and “demonstrate that there are no significant regulatory barriers to installing them,” according to the city staff report.

The proposal would allow city staff members to make changes to previously approved planned-unit developments and conditional use permits for developments seeking to add solar energy systems that otherwise would conflict with certain conditions in their approvals.

“Providing a path for administrative approval is a key criterion for meeting SolSmart Gold status,” the city document says.

Solar energy systems attached to buildings could exceed height limits by 3 feet. Panels could be added to rooftops in all zoning districts or by themselves in back yards and interior side yards. They would still need to meet setbacks for the zoning district, with some exceptions to accommodate solar energy systems over parking lots.

The proposal originally presented to the St. Louis Park Planning Commission had included a condition that structures supporting panels have screening, although staff members removed the condition due to concerns that the screening could create problems operating solar systems. The city’s landscaping requirements still could  allow the city to promote screening with native plantings, for example, according to  Planning Manager Sean Walther.

The new rules would allow building sides to be covered with solar panels. Solar energy systems would require a permit under the new city code and would face some limitations, such as the percentage of property size they could encompass.  Aside from solar panels built over parking lots, the code would limit the systems to 5% of multifamily property lots and 15% of the property parcels for most other uses. However, a freestanding solar farm as the main use in an industrial district could make up as much as 70% of the property.

City code has allowed many solar panels in all zoning districts, but the rules have not always been obvious, Walther said.

“We are very clearly identifying how and when and where solar energy systems are allowed,” Walther said.

He added that he believes the city will achieve the gold designation from SolSmart this year as a result of the proposed changes.

Councilmember Larry Kraft noted the SolSmart program has recognized more than 400 communities for their efforts to accommodate solar power.

Kraft said, “I love the we’re progressing to the next level to make it faster, easier and less expensive to do this.”

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