The Douglas County Planning Commission unanimously denied a school district proposal to build a large solar installation in the heart of the Acres Green neighborhood Monday night.
Although the Douglas County School District could move ahead with those plans despite the ruling, that doesn’t seem likely.
“Legally, they can, but that will not be staff’s recommendation,” the district’s director of facilities Bill Moffitt said after the meeting.
The district is installing solar panels on the roofs of 29 of its schools, as well as at Shea Stadium in Highlands Ranch, to take advantage of a solar energy rebate program offered by Xcel Energy. After it approved the contract with Regeneration Finance, engineers learned the roof at the aging Acres Green Elementary is too frail to support the panels. Instead, they proposed the 260x120-foot, 456-panel ground installation on school property at the corner of Acres Green and Maximus drives.
The planning commission’s rejection followed more than two hours of sometimes-emotional testimony from residents of the Acres Green neighborhood, most of whom opposed the project for its predicted unsightliness and potential to drive down residential property values. They also cited concern for the safety of elementary school children who may scale the fence to explore the panels.
School officials and representatives of the New York-based solar developer Regeneration Finance hosted three meetings in April to try to appease Acres Green residents, adding landscaping to its site plans and upgrading the proposed fence around the panels.
But those additions won’t completely hide the installation, residents said. Commissioners agreed, saying the proposed landscaping will require a lot of water and time to reach the heights depicted on the drawings presented to them Monday.
Acres Green HOA president Ron Brink was among several Acres Green residents who said school district officials erred by not checking the roof before signing the contract with Regeneration Finance.
“They didn’t do their due diligence,” he said. “As a result, the community is going to suffer for 25 years with (these) panels in our front yard.”
School district and Regeneration Finance officials said the Acres Green site is part and parcel of the 31-site contract, but county planning commission chairman Ed Brewer said that might need to be changed.
“It’s not going to be the first contract where something didn’t go as planned,” he said. “I also don’t feel comfortable with the amount of research you did with regard to alternatives to the roof. I just don’t feel that has been fully vetted at this point. I think the community is going to suffer as a result.”
“We’ve had reviews of these panels at other locations,” Commissioner Bill Vincent said. “The whole concept is very good. I think we have a problem with this one.”
Power generated by the panels at the planned 31 sites will save the district an estimated $5.5 million by the end of the 25-year agreement, providing Acres Green Elementary with a-third of the power it needs, school officials estimate.
Residents and commissioners both said the savings to Acres Green Elementary doesn’t justify the impact it will have on the neighborhood.
Moffitt said he doesn’t know what the school board’s next move will be.
The full financial blow of losing the Acres Green site hasn’t been determined, said Regeneration Finance spokesman Adam Larner. But he estimated Monday that at least $500,000 in rebates, equipment and engineering fees would be lost.
The school district is limited in its choice of sites for the solar installations, and can’t easily move the planned Acres Green installation to another building as commissioners suggested, said the district’s energy manager Lee Smit. That’s because the 31 sites are served by Xcel Energy, making them the only ones eligible for the rebates, he said. Intermountain Rural Electric Association serves most of Douglas County’s schools.