Oct. 24—AUGUSTA — Large solar energy projects can again be proposed for Augusta, but they will now be required to be more pleasing or less visible to the eye.
City councilors last week approved zoning changes requiring the proposed solar farms meet stricter requirements for how they would be shielded from view.
The council's action also ended a related moratorium that had held up development of large solar projects while the new rules were developed.
The council's unanimous vote Thursday night adopted the revised solar rules as an emergency measure to allow projects already in the development pipeline or seeking approval to move forward without additional delays.
"Thank you for all the dedicated effort that has been made to move this process along," said Audrey Puleio, a project manager at Dirigo Solar, a Portland-based firm that developed a solar farm with the Augusta Board of Trade and has another solar project proposed for Church Hill Road.
The projects prompted concerns by city councilors, who had the up-to-180-day moratorium put in place in August after they said they had heard from constituents who did not find large solar projects already in the city aesthetically pleasing.
"We appreciate the time the (Augusta Planning Board, which recommended the rule changes) has taken to thoughtfully review your ordinance and work cooperatively within the time constraints of the development community," Puleio said.
The changes include that each ground-mounted, large-scale solar facility limit its visual impact to the greatest extent possible.
Among the options:
—Fencing 7-feet tall, which meets the minimum height required by the national electrical code and blends into the environment around it.
—Fencing that allows small wildlife, such as raccoons and rabbits, to pass underneath.
—Plantings along fence lines to provide a visual buffer.
—Dirt berms tall enough to shield much of the solar panels from view.
The changes also include requirements that:
—Plants and trees be added around large solar development projects to better screen them from view.
—Solar developers file a decommissioning plan, requiring solar farm equipment be removed at any farm that ceases operation.
City councilors and Mayor David Rollins said Augusta enacted the moratorium to provide time for the city's previous rules to be revised to address aesthetic concerns.
"I appreciate how rapidly we responded to this — very sensitive to the business needs," Rollins said. "Augusta is a leader in the green economy, in being a green community. We might be the leading community (in Maine). It's not that we weren't environmentally friendly."
Councilors voted unanimously in favor of the ordinance changes and adopting them as an emergency measure, meaning the normally required second reading did not have to be held, so the measures were adopted after first reading.
Ward 3 City Councilor Mike Michaud, who advocated for the moratorium, said councilors heard from solar developers who have projects pending in Augusta that have been held up by the moratorium so, with the new rules in place, "now it's time to move forward."