City of Portland improves commercial solar zoning code

This July, the City of Portland has updated commercial zoning code with two changes that will decrease the cost of permitting commercial solar.

Each year, the city collects suggestions for improving development codes and creates a Regulatory Improvement Code Amendment Package (RICAP). During the 2014 review process, the city chose to review two areas related to renewable energy installation, with industry feedback from Energy Trust and Oregon Solar Energy Industries Association, OSEIA, on the proposed changes. These changes, which take effect in July 2015, clarify requirements and permitting for commercial solar installations in the Portland’s design overlay zones.

The first change is an exemption from design review for solar installations on flat roofs within design overlay zones. Prior code language provided an exemption on solar installations in Design Overlay Zones within the City of Portland only if modules were mounted parallel with the roof surface. If the modules were tilted, as they typically are with a flat commercial roof installation, they were subject to a design review that can add weeks to the permit review process and between $1,360 and $5,350 in fees for commercial installations.

This change allows modules to be tilted up from the roof surface as long as they meet setback requirements to minimize visibility: for every 1-foot the top edge of the module extends above the parapet that portion of the array must be 4-feet back from the parapet wall. The City provided a drawing in the RICAP 7 Package to help illustrate the rule, and you can find a map showing the design overlay zones at the end of the Chapter 33.420 in the zoning code.

The second change is to begin excluding the value of energy-efficiency upgrades from non-conforming upgrade valuation thresholds. This change has to do with existing commercial buildings that do not meet site standards (such as landscaping, bike parking or pedestrian circulation). When these projects exceed a certain dollar threshold (adjusted annually, and currently at $248,500), upgrades to the site are required that can add significant cost and may prohibit a site owner from proceeding with an installation. Several project costs can be excluded from this threshold, including accessory dwelling units, seismic improvements and “energy efficiency or renewable energy improvements that meet the Public Purpose Administrator incentive criteria.”

The proposal clarifies that an Energy Trust incentive need not necessarily be obtained, only that the improvements meet the criteria for the incentive. This clarification would allow projects receiving incentives from a source other than Energy Trust—such as projects using the volumetric incentive rate—to qualify and exclude the value of the upgrade from the valuation threshold.

Contact the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability at 503.823.7700 with any questions about the City of Portland Zoning Code.