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Crazy Solar Story

One of our readers recently contacted me about a crazy fight her and her husband (+ other solar advocates in the state) were having with policymakers in her city. She contacted me right at the end of this story, before the finale you’ll read below. Following all of it, I asked her to write up a story for CleanTechnica, hoping that it could perhaps help others in a similar situation now or down the line. Or, at the least, it’s an entertaining “WTF” story. Read on for this excellent piece from Frances Babb.

After spending approximately $100,000 in professional/attorney fees over the past two years fighting us and the 43 other members of the Missouri Solar Energy Industries Association (MOSEIA) over the denial of a $69 building permit, the mayor of the wealthy city of Clarkson Valley, MO was quoted as saying “We are not against solar, but… If anyone feels like they want solar panels, we want them to come forward and put them in. We are not against solar panels and never had been.”

After all we’ve been through, that statement is hard for us to believe. When my husband applied for a permit back on November 1, 2011, there were no laws on the books regulating solar. Permits should have been issued in a timely fashion per the city’s own ordinance. Our building plans had already been approved by our HOA and our local utility company. With our plans in hand, the city hastily drafted a proposed ordinance banning solar panels on the front of homes, ground mounts, and awning systems. Had the ordinance passed, we couldn’t have complied with the terms of the solar rebate program. The next month, ½ of the city council members mysteriously, for the first time ever, called in sick or were unavailable. The council meeting was cancelled but a working session was held instead with ½ of the aldermen attending. Perhaps it was the backlash caused by the local TV news crew, several newspapers, and the local radio station that had picked up the story that caused the aldermen to suddenly become indisposed. The crew of greenies who showed up had plenty to say about what they called the most restrictive solar ordinance in the state. The following month, the city passed its ordinance, which turned out to be even more restrictive than the one introduced the evening after we first applied for a permit.

The terms of the ordinance required property owners to first pay $350 for a special use permit application. The special use permit required planning and zoning approval as well as Board of Aldermen approval and at least some buy-in with approximately 20 of our nearby neighbor’s homes that were within 500 feet of our property line. The fire codes greatly limited panel placement on roofs, far in excess of the already restrictive 2012 International Fire Codes. The more complex the roof line, the less rooftop panels were allowed. This played with the cost-benefit of solar energy systems. It also made systems less visually attractive and gave NIMBY neighbors just cause for complaints.

Aesthetic limitations were enacted to force panels to be parallel to the plane of the roof. Aldermen were allowed to modify plans as they saw fit for aesthetic purposes, even forcing systems to be placed in shaded areas. Two sets of safety labeling in large lettering were required on disconnects, each saying basically the same thing. Permits were only allowed to be issued to a very limited number of people who were either NABCEP certified or professional engineers. This was in conflict with the licensing policies of the city’s building code sub-contractor. In order to be issued a permit, an installer must pass both the city’s ordinance was well as the county’s ordinance. Back when we applied, only 6 such individuals in the entire state were able to meet both the city and county’s licensing requirements. Sign-off was required by a licensed professional. Annual recurring costs were added to the ordinance by 3rd party testing agencies. The worst thing was the revocation of permits when the homeowner no longer owned the property. Who in their right mind would spend tens of thousands of dollars to upgrade their home if when they moved everything had to be restored back to its original condition or a lot of fancy footwork had to be done to avoid paying steep fines for having a solar energy without a permit?

With the city’s transient resident base, homeowners selling their home in less than 10 years would breach the terms of their solar rebate contract. If a homeowner couldn’t comply with all portions of the ordinance, they could always seek a variance. The Board of Zoning Adjustment members are appointed by the mayor and approved by the Board of Aldermen. The BZA meeting would be another $500 fee, another public hearing with all of the neighbors and another delay which nipped into the mandatory deadline for system completions in order to get a rebate. On top of all of these requirements, the homeowners association wanted to enact its own rules, which would add additional restrictions and delays.

After we achieved P&Z approval, neighbors — who previously voiced no concerns to us when we told them of our plans — arrived in even greater numbers to the Board of Aldermen meeting to complain about our proposed “solar farm.” There were concerns that panels would fly off the roof like frisbees in the first strong wind, that critters might nest under the panels and possibly cause residents to get rabies, that glare from panels might blind drivers who would run off the road and crash into people’s houses, that our system was too large and should be considered a business because energy might accidentally escape onto the grid (for which we would be compensated), and of course the standard complaint that solar was ugly and would ruin property values in the neighborhood. There were concerns that we might buy Chinese solar panels. Some claimed that anything made in China was junk and didn’t belong in a first-class neighborhood. One neighbor feared that with all of the trees on our property that leaves might collect and cause the panels to spontaneously combust, burning down the entire neighborhood. An alderman expressed concern about our house being too tall for us to be able to clean the panels regularly. To that, I asked him how often he got on top of his roof and cleaned it. Lastly, a respected realtor said he feared that prospective buyers wouldn’t even get out of the car to look at a nearby property for sale if they sighted something ugly nearby.

Funny, I’ve never seen a safety warning on PV panels claiming dangerous flying objects, wildfires, rabies, and automobile accidents as possible consequences of using solar panels.

Our request to install even a single solar panel anywhere on our 4.56 acres of densely forested land was denied by a vote of 6-0 without any explanation. We and the solar installers unsuccessfully tried everything imaginable to get our project approved. Our only recourse was to sue. So we did, and we won.

Our solar home

The city fought valiantly, claiming that we filed too late, in the wrong court, in the wrong county, under the wrong statutes, and joined with inappropriate parties (the solar installers and the public service commission). They claimed that local zoning ordinances allowed them to ignore the state’s solar rights act, which declared the right to use solar energy as a property right (property rights are protected by the constitution). The court disagreed and allowed us to install our system. But the city was unhappy and appealed the decision after the system had been up and running for months. The court affirmed the lower court’s decision that the city’s actions were arbitrary, capricious, unreasonable, and were an abuse of discretion. They were ordered to issue us permits, within one business day. If they failed to do so, the court allowed us to build our system per our application, under their authority. Even though our system has been up and running now for 16 months, the city has still stubbornly refused to issue us permits. Shockingly, in the press, the city is touting a victory for cities in our solar panel lawsuit because their restrictive ordinance was not overturned. Cities across Missouri can continue to write restrictive solar ordinances as long as they don’t prevent a homeowner from using solar energy or effectively preventing it. Spoken like a true politician, our 83-year-old mayor, who has been running the town for decades, claims no one at city hall is against solar panels.

The irony in this story is our system, which sits more than a football field away from the curb, and is barely visible to anyone most of the year. Above is a photo of what the controversial system looks like.

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