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Monday, September 26, 2011

Are Tom Gentz' Solar Panels Illegal?

Quick and decisive answer from Charlestown's Building Official
By Will Collette

After being told by Town Administrator Bill DiLibero that all forms of alternative energy installations are not a permitted use in Charlestown, I followed Mr. DiLibero's suggestion to get a more definitive answer from Charlestown's Housing Official Joe Warner.

I wanted to know generally about where alternative energy stands in the town's eyes and specifically whether the solar panels on Town Council President Tom Gentz's house were legal.

I received this reply:

So, I take away several lessons from this. (1) a permitted use is what the Town Building Official says it is. (2) It helps if you have whatever it is built into the original house. (3) Whatever it is, put it on the roof.

And we sorely need that conversation in this town about the all-encompassing reach of the town's power into our daily lives. Now.

In my opinion, the Platner Principle - all is prohibited unless it is permitted - is unjust, intrusive and subject to selective enforcement and abuse. Instead, I offer the Collette Codicil - all is permitted unless it is prohibied (and then, only for a damn good reason).


  1. Is Ruth Platner expressly permitted to be in Charlestown?

  2. Ahhh, glad to hear that the Town won't reject the application when Alteris stops by to get the building permit for my solar panels (assuming they get the state grant).

    I had told the guy to try to not mention my name when getting the permit. Maybe that's not even an issue now.

    It has been frustrating how difficult it's been to get a clear answer on this.

  3. Will, what you should really be taking away from Mr. Warner's reply is: 1. The Land Use Table only determines which PRINCIPAL USES may be established in each of the zoning districts. 2. Uses that are not listed in the Table are not automatically prohibited (sorry, Ruth) - the Building Inspector is authorized (and required) to make a determination as to whether a proposed use is similar enough to a listed use to be permitted in the same fashion. 3. An unlimited number of accessory uses, customarily incidental and subordinate to the authorized principal use, can be established on any lot, unless exempted or superceded elsewhere in the Ordinance.

    What this means is that all the whining about all the mundane everyday activities that people "are prohibited from doing in their own homes" can just stop. Customarily incidental activities to a residential dwelling clearly include gardening, recreation, hobbies, even in-home occupations (218-37(I)-12 . Some of these activities may be regulated in part (most often in terms of where on the lot accessory structures may be located, or in some instances, like stables or greenhouses, some safeguards for neighbors' privacy or comfort.) Section 218-37B, which regulates accessory uses, rules out using motor vehicles, mobile homes, trailers or recreational vehicles as storage or utility buildings, and says that gasoline stations can not be considered an accessory use (duh). It does not rule out any other uses.

    What Mr. Warner did not mention is that the Building Inspector's decisions are all subject to review by the Zoning Board of Appeals. An important part to all zoning ordinances is access to due process, and the appeal process is well-organized to protect the rights of both the applicant and abutting property owners.

    That having been said, there are many things about the zoning ordinance that are confusing, unfounded or unfair, and a well-grounded discussion of those issues is overdue. And the Planning Commission is now hard at work rewriting the entire zoning ordinance, so who knows what additional issues will arise with that.

    So please let the hysteria about mass prohibition end now. If you want to berate Ms. Platner for making (or even believing) her misleading and incomplete recitation of the zoning ordinance, that's fair. If you want to scoff at Mr. DiLibero's limited understanding of our zoning ordinance and wonder why he didn't just direct the Building Inspector to put an end to the misunderstanding, without first putting his foot in his mouth, that's fair too.

    If you want to advocate for change that will make the zoning ordinance more fair, how's this for starters: Make the fee for filing an appeal of the Building Inspector's decision ($125) refundable if the appeal is upheld and the decision is reversed.

    By the way, I do not agree with Mr. Warner's statement that roof-mounted solar panels may be considered an accessory use, any more than I would agree that a satellite dish, furnace, water heater or air conditioning unit could be considered accessory uses, when installed on or within a permitted structure. "Alternative energy systems" are not uses governed by zoning. They are construction components governed by the Building, Electrical and other similar safety Codes, and the only limitation that I believe zoning should be able to place upon them are the district setback and height regulations.

  4. Dear Evelyn - thanks for chiming in on the issue. You are one of the most experienced and knowledgeable people in town on these issues.

    I think the debate over the Platner Principle (prohibited unless permitted) has to do almost entirely with what Ms. Platner claims is the law than what the law really is.

    I found her repeated assertions of the Platner Principle to be outrageous and never once believed her claim was legitimate. She may think she is omnipotent, but as you explain, she is not.

    My inclination, when confronted with something so off the charts unbelievable, like the Platner Principle, is to lampoon it. It's my own flaw that I can't take something seriously when it's ridiculous.

    Your analysis of the situation and critique of other's versions of reality makes me all the more certain that Charlestown desperately needs to air out the subject of town regulation of land and property.

    We need some clarity and common sense in our zoning ordinance - and hearing you say that the Planning Commission is now engaged in a total rewrite simply scares the sh*#^ out of me.

    I hope you'll write more about this....


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