Council member Bill Jensen is often the most anti-development member of the Apex Town Council. But he has found an unexpected partner in a proposal that would allow developers to build denser neighborhoods in exchange for converting many of the new homes to solar power.
“This actually came from a developer,” Jensen said.
On July 21, the Town Council unanimously voted to have town staff finalize a proposal that would create more green energy projects in future developments.
Apex typically requires developers to set aside 25 percent of the land in a sudivision for open space or recreational areas, a requirement the town refers to as a Resource Conservation Area, or RCA.
In the draft proposal, that RCA requirement could be reduced by up to 2 percent if the developer agrees to install 80 kilowatts of solar capacity for every acre of land converted from open space to developable land.
While the investment could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, a developer could receive tax credits and also could make a net profit by building and selling more homes, Jensen said.
If a developer fails to install enough solar panels, that developer would be forced to pay a fee to the town, according to Jensen’s rough draft. That fee would then be used to install solar panels on town property.
Jensen previously had suggested reducing the RCA requirement by as much as 5 percent.
Town Manager Bruce Radford told Jensen in emails that he didn’t like the idea of such a big reduction and only would consider it if the council approves it.
“We have given this idea some thought,” Radford wrote in June. “We think the common good is served best and observed most by RCA, not solar installations on homes.”
To the council, Jensen suggested a scaled-down version of what he had discussed with Radford. Jensen said Apex – and the environment in general – would benefit from more green energy projects.
“You’ve reduced it from 25 to 23 (percent), which is not a lot,” he said. “And the objective here is you get more homes with solar cells.”
In a 100-acre development, the builders would have to add 160 kilowatts of solar energy capacity to get an additional 2 acres to build on. That’s enough power to take 70 or 80 homes off the grid – maybe a third of the homes in a subdivision of that size.
Stew Miller, co-founder of Cary-based Yes! Solar Soultions, said he believes Apex would be the first town with such a rule, not just in North Carolina, but in the Southeast.
“I think it’s an ingenious way of working with new homebuilders and getting solar put on new homes,” Miller said, estimating that 95 percent of his company’s residential business comes from homeowners, not homebuilders.
Jensen is a longtime supporter of solar energy.
He previously asked Town Council members to ask the state to create a grant that would help cities and towns build solar projects. The town approved that in a 4-1 vote.
Other of Jensen’s pushes for solar energy have been criticized in the past, however, because he once owned Apex Solar Electric.
He denies any improprieties, and the Town Council approved this latest suggestion 4-0 with little discussion. Scott Lassiter, who cast the lone vote against Jensen’s solar grant proposal earlier this year, was absent.
The solar-for-land tradeoff will be voluntary. Jensen said many developments have more than enough wetlands or other undevelopable land to account for the 25-percent requirement, so those builders probably wouldn’t go for the new deal.
But a developer who stumbles across a pristine piece of property would be able to get more use out of the land – and in the process do a little to help the environment, he said.
Correction: A previous version of this story implied that Apex Council Member Bill Jensen’s Apex Solar Electric business is currently active. He has discontinued the business.
Doran: 919-460-2604; Twitter: @will_doran