HARVARD -- A proposed new solar fee schedule may soon be on the table, but as of the Dec. 4 selectmen's meeting, it was still up in the air.
Several people who accompanied Solar Garden proponent Worth Robbins to that meeting might have come to speak in favor of the group's standing request to consider separate permit fees for communal solar sites, serving individuals whose residential or business property for one reason or another didn't meet solar installation criteria.
But by the time the topic came up, late in the evening, the tenor had turned tense, and none of them did. Neither did the engineer Robbins brought along with the intent to have him speak.
"Robert Erb is with us," he ventured. He was about to introduce the engineer, who had moved from the back of the room to sit by Robbins as he stood at the microphone.
"He's the engineer and has installation experience with the scale of system we're talking about," Robbins continued.
But Selectman Ron Ricci halted the introduction. "It's nearly 10 p.m.," he said, calling it "too late" and "inappropriate" to launch such discussion then and there. Instead, he suggested that the engineer's expert input could be shared with the building inspector and Town Administrator Tim Bragan another time. Erb quietly retreated.
"If I could get a document to read..." Selectman Marie Sobalvarro added.
"That could happen tomorrow," Robbins responded.
He followed up with a Dec. 13 memo to the board. Its purpose, he said, was to "again request action to adopt the fee schedule proposed by Selectman Clark."
Clark, at the board's request, looked into the matter after Robbins made his initial bid to the board at an earlier meeting.
At the recent meeting, Clark presented his findings with a document, "Proposed Solar Photovoltaic Panel Permit Schedule." It shows permit fees based on installation size, with single-site building permit fees set lower as the size of the installation goes up and added electrical permit fees for each additional inspection.
"Our fee structure is inconsistent," with the type of installation the solar garden folks plan," Clark said. For example, a solar garden layout would cover a lot of ground versus a rooftop or ground mounted installation to serve a single residence or business.
As it stands now, each solar panel is subject to set fees for individual building and electrical inspections, $125 and $36, respectively, plus $36 each for additional electrical inspections. That may work well enough for individual installations. But for a multipanel array set on numerous ground-mounted foundations, such as in a solar garden, the existing fee structure carries onerous permit costs, which is why Robbins is seeking relief.
It does not necessarily require increased inspection services to handle a solar garden inspection, Clark said, and in most instances, the opposite would be true.
"Unlike stick-built construction, solar panels arrive intact, ready to install," Clark said. Therefore, the solar inspection job is "fairly simple" by comparison. He based proposed new fees on the premise that the inspection fee should reflect the "level of service" provided to ensure that codes are met, he explained.
He also proposed changing the fee distribution paradigm.
Rather than follow the current building and electrical inspection models, in which the town and the inspector split the fee, solar inspection fees for installations up to 500kW would go 100 percent to the inspectors, with fees corresponding to size of installation. After that, it becomes a "flat fee" that he proposes splitting 50/50 with the building inspector and 80/20 with the electrical inspector, Clark said.
He indicated that the proposed new fee setup had been vetted with the inspectors, but Ricci brought him up short on that claim. "It's dishonest to say that (Building Inspector Gabe Vellante) approves your proposal," he said to Clark.
"This isn't about zoning, only the fees," Clark shot back. Vellante is also the Zoning Enforcement officer. "We need to address this."
Sobalvarro suggested getting documentation from Vellante. "We have a project in the pipeline," she said.
Selectman Bill Johnson asked if there are other fee schedules besides solar in which the town waives its split.
Bragan said yes. "Often by request of the department ... on a municipal project," he said.
Johnson also wanted to know how fee money is used, when the town does take its share.
It goes into the general fund as a "local receipt," Bragan told him.
"In general, I like the idea of fees that actually reflect the effort" involved, Johnson said, "but I don't know if that's the case," with solar inspections, even if the task is repetitive. "I'd love to hear from the inspectors," about parameters and particulars, he said.
From a "philosophical" slant, however, Johnson said he's leery of establishing what might be an arbitrary precedent. He'd prefer consistency, he said.
Chairman Lucy Wallace pointed out that when the town voted to become a "Green Community," that meant encouraging solar projects, and if waiving the inspection fee split accomplishes that goal, it might be a good idea.
Only for installations up to a certain size, Bragan reminded her.
Discussion continued for some time, but the upshot was that some selectmen wanted to see the entire permit process laid out for cost comparison. They asked Bragan how long it would take him to review it all, in concert with Vellante
"Six weeks," he said.
"It would be nice to decide sooner," Wallace said.
They didn't decide that night, however, nor did they set a date for doing so.