Last week, the city of North Richlands Hills overturned an ordinance requiring a special use permit for solar panels on the street-facing side of homes. Photo courtesy of the DFW Solar Tour.

May 25, 2015

Local solar advocates are celebrating a victory after the city of North Richland Hills overturned a solar ordinance last week that critics say discouraged the installation of solar panels.

The law passed by the North Richland Hills City Council in December required a special use permit for solar panels facing the street and for ground-mounted systems over 500 square feet.

The ordinance came about over the city's aesthetic concerns.

“We’re not saying we’re anti-solar,” said Clayton Comstock, senior planner for the city of North Richland Hills, said at the time. “But part of the city’s image is design – how it looks when you drive through the community.” 

As a result, the new law created hurdles for those who wanted to put solar panels on the front of their homes where people could see them. Neighbors had to be notified, public hearings had to be held and the homeowner needed a green light from the City Council.  By state law, if the owners of 20 percent of the land area within the 200-foot notification boundary formally opposed a case, a super majority of the city council would have to approve. 

This ordinance might have gone on the books unnoticed but for North Richland Hills residents Dan Lepinski, a solar engineer, and Lori De La Cruz, a sustainability coordinator for Mountain View College, who served as watchdogs on the issue and barked loudly. 

Above, Dan Lepinski, a North Richland Hills-based solar engineer, organized a petition drive opposing the city's strict solar ordinance. Photo by Karl Thibodeaux. Below, Lori De La Cruz spoke in favor of overturning the city's solar ordinance last week. Courtesy of NRH.

They rallied dozens of residents and North Texas solar advocates to the cause, who spoke up at city meetings, wrote letters and helped collect more than 800 signatures for a petition to overturn the ordinance. 

Larry Howe, founder of Plano Solar Advocates and board member for the Texas Solar Energy Society, was among those who spoke out against the ordinance. He said not only was the new process a hassle but if a homeowner with a south facing home was barred from putting solar panels on the front of their house, it would reduce their potential energy savings.

“For best overall annual production, the panels should be on the south side,” said Howe. “They’ll have 10 to 30 percent less production if they’re installed any other way.”

The city initially held their ground, saying the petition was nullified due to a loophole. Then in February, the city sent out a survey to residents. 

When the results were finally revealed, it showed that 61 percent of residents didn’t feel they needed to be notified if their neighbor wanted to install solar panels. 

This month, Mayor Oscar Trevino hinted to the press that he expected the City Council to overturn the law.

In the meantime, the North Richland Hills Planning & Zoning Commission unanimously voted to let the ordinance stand. 

Left, NRH City Councilman Scott Turnage said: “I think these [solar panels] are doggone ugly and I would really call on the industry to try and come up with something that’s more aesthically pleasing,” before he voted to drop the restrictive solar ordinance.

“We were really expecting it to be drawn out for months,” said De La Cruz. “We thought it wouldn't be on Council’s agenda till fall.”

But the issue appeared on the City Council’s agenda May 18. Prior to the vote, several members expressed their personal dislike for solar panels. But they voted 6-1 to cease requiring an SUP for street-facing solar panels. Only ground-mounted systems that don’t meet the city’s parameters still require an SUP.

“We’re pleased with the outcome but we’re still a little bit on our guard,” said De La Cruz. “We’ll continue to monitor agendas and our sources.”

Lepinski was also cautiously pleased.

“It was clearly progress,” he said. “They did what the people asked – they begrudgingly changed their vote.”

“Despite my personal feelings about solar panels, I feel like our job is be a representative for the people who put us in office.” –Councilwoman Rita Wright Oujesky, who voted to revoke the solar ordinance.

However, they were both dismayed that some city council members maintained their position that solar panels are ugly even as they voted to allow them. 

City Councilman Tim Barth, the only council member who voted to keep the ordinance, predicted a backlash. 

“As I look through these survey data, I’m still not convinced that our citizens are absolutely ready for the possibility of many of these [solar panel applications] coming through,” said Barth.

Lepinski said they’re still missing the point – which is how solar energy can benefit society. Solar panels utilize a plentiful renewable resource. They reduce pollution and they can cut a homeowner’s utility bill in half.

“What we really need is a solar-friendly ordinance,” said Lepinski.

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