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Residents Upset With New Restrictions On Solar Panels

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NORTH RICHLAND HILLS (CBSDFW.COM) - Homeowners in North Richland Hills say the city government is making it harder – not easier – to harness clean energy.

The frustration stems from a new ordinance, passed earlier this month that adds regulations to solar panel installations.

In a 5-2 vote, the North Richland Hills city council approved an ordinance establishing guidelines for solar power systems.

Ground mounted systems are designated permanent accessory structures and subject to the same size, location and setback criteria as other accessory buildings.

The ordinance also allows roof mounted solar panels when the panels do not face a street. Solar panels located on street-facing roof slopes now require a special use permit (SUP) in addition to the regular installation permit.

It is the SUP mandate that many homeowners and solar proponents say is too restrictive.

The SUP application costs $582, and requires notification of neighbors and a public hearing. An application does not guarantee approval – just consideration. The process of achieving SUP approval can take up to 45 days.

"This is purely aesthetics," said Dan Lepinski, of the city's reasons for requiring special permitting.

Lepinski has ten panels on his own roof slope, and hopes to add more. His solar power system reduces his energy bills, and even sends power back to the grid on cloudy days.

A solar engineer and North Richland Hills homeowner, Lepinski worries the new rule will discourage some people from exploring the idea of solar power.

His concern is especially for people who are interested in solar panels and whose homes face south – the best exposure for collecting sunlight.

"[The SUP process] is enough to dissuade many people from putting them on their homes," said Lepinski.

65 of 20,000 homes in North Richland Hills have solar panel permits. Current installations are grandfathered in under the new law.

Lepinski says he's surveyed more than 100 people who live near solar panels, and 97 percent either are in favor or have no opinion on the matter.

Lori De La Cruz lives one street behind Lepinski, and can see his panels from inside her home. She says she does not mind the aesthetics, and hopes to install them one day on her own roof.

"I think [the new ordinance] is very backward. I think it's taking away the rights of North Richland Hills citizens to provide their own power to their homes. Two of the biggest things we're facing in our region right now are air pollution and drought. Energy production creates a lot of air pollution and it uses a lot of water," said De La Cruz.

Mary Peters, Public Information Officer for the City of North Richland Hills, says the change was not complaint-driven. Peters says the city is not anti-solar – that the point was to establish a process for new installations.

"We had a resident come forward who wanted to put a 26-ft.tall, 1,000 sq. ft. system in their front yard. We didn't have a mechanism in place or an ordinance to address that," said Peters.

The homeowner referenced by Peters contacted CBS 11 News. She says the solar panels would not have gone in the front yard, but in the side yard, inside the building line and behind a fence with a mature live oak in front of it.

The homeowner says she wanted a free-standing solar power system, and this was an optimal place. Had they installed the panels, the homeowner says, their home would have been 99-percent completely solar powered.

Peters adds that the ordinance is a starting point, and could be revised in the future, if needed, should there be an increase in requests.

Lepinski and some other solar supporters have already started a petition, to make it easier for new installation now.

"The city's trying to fix a problem that doesn't exist," Lepinski says.

(©2014 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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