Already recognized as a Bronze designee in the SolSmart program, River Forest took a major step toward achieving Silver status, the next step up, at the Sept. 12 village board meeting.

Officials unanimously approved text amendments to amend the zoning ordinance to create standards for solar energy collection systems and to define the accessory use allowance in each zoning district. According to Eric Simon, chair of the Sustainability Commission, the action is “the final hurdle,” and the village now has met the criteria for Silver status. He said officials will apply to SolSmart for the Silver designation but noted they don’t know how long it will take to hear back.

Simon explained that SolSmart was created by the Department of Energy, in partnership with solar nonprofits, to address the problem of complicated processes and red tape discouraging well-intentioned people from installing solar at their homes or businesses.

The national program is designed to recognize communities that have taken key steps to foster the growth of mature local solar markets. Communities that meet the official criteria are designated SolSmart Gold, Silver or Bronze. The program is led by the Solar Foundation and the International City/County Management Association and funded by the Solar Energy Technologies Office of the U.S. Department of Energy.

Officials initiated the effort in April when they followed a recommendation from the Village Sustainability Commission to amend the zoning ordinance.

“I applaud our sustainability commission and village board for setting goals and taking action,” Village President Cathy Adduci said. “These text amendments are a simple change that will make our code friendlier to residents and businesses seeking to take advantage of alternative energy sources.

“This amendment allows the village to pursue SolSmart Silver designation. River Forest is proud to be among the leaders in our state in solar energy.”

The amendments add standards for roof-mounted and ground-mounted solar energy collection systems to the zoning code. The ordinance also amends the land-use chart to state that roof-mounted systems are permitted in every zoning district and that ground-mounted systems are special use in every zoning district.

“We as a village are doing all we can do,” Trustee Lisa Gillis said. “We want to make it easier for folks” to access solar energy.

Matt Walsh, assistant to the village administrator, said in a memo to officials that amending the zoning code allows them to provide a zoning clarification letter that declares solar systems as an accessory use, which is a requirement for the Silver designation.

“Our goal is to utilize this program to push River Forest to eliminate as many barriers as possible to increase adoption,” Simon said. “We have already done a lot of work on this, including building a website specifically for solar with numerous resources for our residents; simplified the permitting process; and the latest, which is ensuring that zoning language accommodates and clarifies solar.

“All of our commission’s efforts are to achieve our goals and objectives of reducing greenhouse gases and the adoption of solar is one of the most impactful ways residents can generate their own clean, renewable energy, save money and move us closer to being part of the solution in combating climate change.”

Simon noted that the “aggressive programs” Illinois has to reduce the cost of installing a solar system have been supported by climate considerations contained in the federal government’s Inflation Reduction Act passed last month.

“We want to make sure River Forest has everything in place so our residents can take advantage of this in the easiest way possible,” he added.

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