Lawrence zoning board approves application for carport with solar energy panels

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Despite neighbors’ protests, the Lawrence Township Zoning Board of Adjustment has approved a use variance to permit the construction of a solar panel-covered carport in the parking lot at the Church of St. Ann on Lawrence Road.

The zoning board approved the use variance in a 5-2 vote at a special meeting July 25. A use variance was needed because a solar carport is not a permitted use in the EGI (Education Government Institution) zone.

The five “yes” votes were cast by Olga Dember, Philip Duran, Jeff Johnson, Bruce Kmosko and Charles Lavine. Board member Sheila Grant and Chairman Ed Wiznitzer voted “no.”

Grant voted against granting the use variance because she said she would not want the solar carport in her neighborhood. She said she put herself in the neighbors’ shoes.

Wiznitzer voted “no” because he agreed with the neighbors who said the facility would be detrimental to the neighborhood.

The application, filed by IGS Solar LLC, calls for installing solar panels on a carport that would be constructed over the parking lot. Solar panels would also be installed on the roof of the church and the adjoining Faith Development Center.

The plan that was approved was a smaller version of the original plan. The solar carport was reduced in size by 40 percent, and additional panels will be added to the church and education center roofs to make up for the loss.

The applicant’s planner, William McManus, told the zoning board that a solar energy installation is considered to be an “inherently beneficial use” under the state’s Municipal Land Use Law.

The solar energy installation serves the public interest by creating renewable energy and thus reducing greenhouse gases, McManus said. The detrimental effect, which is visual, can be mitigated through additional landscaping, he said.

The carport’s canopy will be a maximum of 16 feet tall and will be tilted slightly to the south. It will be visible from houses that border the property on Eldridge Avenue and Lawrence Avenue and that is what triggered the neighbors’ opposition.

John Steinmuller, who lives on Winthrop Road and is a real estate agent and commercial property appraiser, told the zoning board it should consider the impact on the neighbors.

Steinmuller acknowledged he does not live in the Eldridge Park neighborhood, but said he has a friend who owns a house on Eldridge Avenue that will be affected by the solar carport.

And while he supports solar energy and its overall benefits, the carport will not benefit the 25 houses in its vicinity, Steinmuller said, adding that it will negatively affect property values.

Many people begin their search for a home online, but that only tells part of the story, he said. When prospective buyers drive by a property for sale, and they will see the surrounding neighborhood, and depending on what they find, they may not pursue it.

The result is that houses near the carport will likely attract fewer buyers and result in lower offers, Steinmuller said.

“I think the property values for these people needs to be considered,” he said.

Donna and Eric Miller, who live on Laurelwood Drive, also expressed concern about a decline in property values. They recently bought a house on Eldridge Avenue, near the church, to help their daughter get started.

The Church of St. Ann will benefit from the solar panel project, but not the neighbors, Donna Miller said. The church is gaining the benefit “on the backs of the taxpayers,” whose homes will potentially lose their value, she said.

“It’s just not fair,” she said.

Eldridge Avenue resident Merritt McGlyn, whose home backs up to the church’s parking lot, said she has solar panels on the roof of her house and benefits from it, but she said she and her neighbors will be able to see the solar carport from their homes.

Eldridge Park is a “tight community” where there are families that have lived there for two or three generations, McGlyn said. The installation of the solar carport will be an “eyesore” for the residents as they come in and out of their homes, she said.

The solar panel installation is a “small dent (in the quest for renewable energy), but we are not saving the world. I just don’t think an installation of this size belongs in my back yard,” McGlyn said.

Chris Garubba, who lives on Lawrence Avenue, also objected to the application. The Church of St. Ann is one entity, “but the homes are many” in the neighborhood, he said.

“We will have to look at this every day. It is offensive to me, personally,” Garrurba said.