Court sides with solar firm in zoning battle

Gratz borough in Dauphin County failed to properly advertise a meeting where it set stricter zoning standards for solar energy systems even as a company was seeking permission to build a 17-megawatt project there.

  • That was the ruling last week from a three-judge panel of Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court, which upheld a 2022 decision by Dauphin County court.
  • The county court had voided the zoning standards, which, among other things, would have treated solar panels as buildings, reducing the number of panels that could be erected on a given property.
  • Efforts to reach Gratz borough and its attorney were not successful.
  • An attorney for the developer, an affiliate of North Carolina-based Pine Gate Renewables, declined to comment.
  • Efforts to reach Pine Gate were not successful.

Why is this happening: Pine Gate affiliate G Morris Solar LLC has been looking to develop a solar project on about 180 acres of leased farmland in the northern portion of Gratz, a borough in northern Dauphin County, according to court filings.

  • Most of the land is in a district where major solar energy systems are allowed as a conditional use.
  • But a portion is zoned residential and solar systems are not allowed.
  • After the borough declined to rezone the residential portion, G Morris focused on developing just the other portions of the tract.
  • Around the same time, the borough council began drafting an ordinance to tighten the rules for solar systems.
  • When considered building, for example, solar panels would only be allowed to take up 20% of the land.
  • Neighbors, meanwhile, had complained about the potential impact of solar panels on property values and the local landscape, according to a filing by the borough in county court.
  • Council approved the new rules at a meeting on May 2, 2022.

What’s the problem,: G Morris filed an appeal in county court the next month arguing that the borough had not given adequate notice that it was considering the new ordinance.

  • The first notice came April 21 in a local newspaper, The Citizen Standard, followed by a second on April 28, less than the legal minimum of seven days before the council vote, according to court filings.
  • After the county court ruled in favor of the developer, the borough appealed to Commonwealth Court, arguing it had new evidence and that the county court should rehear the case.

What evidence: That its second notice was actually published two days ahead of the newspaper’s printed publication date of April 28, a Thursday.

  • The borough argued that the paper began hitting newsstands on April 26, a Tuesday.
  • In a 10-page decision by Judge Ellen Ceisler, Commonwealth Court did not buy the argument, noting that the earlier date still violated state law.

What’s next: A second legal front.

  • The developer is suing the borough after council, in June 2022, rejected its application for conditional use, i.e., permission to erect solar panels.
  • That case is still before Dauphin County court.

The trend: As of the second quarter, developers had installed nearly 1,200 megawatts of solar power in Pennsylvania, enough to power nearly 151,000 homes, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

  • While state policy encourages the use of renewable energy sources like the sun, solar developers sometimes meet resistance in local communities.
  • Neighbors fear declining property values and the loss of farmland.
  • In Gratz, neighbors also noted that the proposed solar project is near a 190-year-old church and a cemetery containing 50 Civil War veterans.


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