Street facing solar panels in Cedar Hill. Courtesy of DFW Solar Home Tour.  

Jan. 23, 2015  

Solar proponents in North Richland Hills are pushing back against the city’s solar ordinance, calling it too restrictive.  

Last week, North Richland HIlls resident Dan Lepinski delivered a petition to the city to overturn the law, which the city council passed 5-2 in December. The city validated the petition this week.

Lepinski and about 25 volunteers gathered 874 signatures in six days. They needed at least 733 registered voters to sign, equaling 25 percent of the number of people who voted in the last city election.

Dan Lepinski delivers a petition to overturn North Richland Hills' new solar ordinance. Courtesy of Support Solar NRH.

Lepinski said they only had 30 days from when the ordinance was official on Dec. 15 to turn in the petition. Rounding up volunteers during the holidays and a stretch of cold, rainy weather was daunting. Still he said they were people lined up to sign when he set up a table in front of a community center after the new year.

“The overwhelming response from people was ‘This is ridiculous,’” he said.

The ordinance, which has riled solar advocates from across the Metroplex, requires a $582 special use permit for solar panels facing the street. In addition, ground-mounted systems more than 500 square feet would also require a SUP.  

According to Clayton Comstock, senior planner for the city of North Richland Hills, the ordinance was inacted to address aesthetic concerns.

“We’re not saying we’re anti-solar,” said Comstock, before the vote. “But part of the city’s image is design – how it looks when you drive through the community.”

Lepinski, a solar engineer, doesn’t buy that argument, saying that solar is being singled out.

“I can put 50 sky lights on my home. I could put 100 whirly birds in my yard. I could put bright hot pink shingles on my roof and the neighbors would have no say.”

However, with the new ordinance, neighbors would have a say about a resident’s solar panels. The law requires that property owners within 200 feet of the subject property be notified. The public hearing is also published in the local newspaper and a sign is posted on the applicant’s property. By state law, if 20 percent of the land area within the 200-foot notification boundary formally opposes a case, a super majority of the city council – six members – would have to approve the case. 

A ground-mounted solar system in Cedar Hill. Courtesy of DFW Solar Home Tour. 

Lori De La Cruz, a North Richland Hills resident and sustainability coordinator at Mountain View College, said the city should be making it easier to adopt renewable energy, not adding hurdles. 

“The two biggest problems facing our region are air pollution and a water shortage,” she said. “You have residents who are willing to put solar on their homes and it costs the city nothing.” 

Larry Howe, the founder of Plano Solar Advocates and board member for the Texas Solar Energy Society, is one of the solar advocates who has spoken out publicly against the North Richland Hills law.

“They seem to be saying solar is OK as long as you don’t see it,” he said. “The way you get people interested in solar is having people see it.”

Lepinski said North Richland Hills leaders are out of sync with other communities in North Texas. The majority of cities, including Dallas and Fort Worth, have simple permitting processes regarding solar, according to his research.

For now, he is scheduled to meet with the city manager to discuss the next step. According to city bylaws, now that the petition is accepted, the city council must rescind the ordinance or put it on the ballot for voters to decide. 

He believes residents have already spoken through the petition. 

“I would say the majority of people who signed it said ‘I don’t have solar, I’m probably not going to get solar, but I think people should have the right to do this without getting approval from their neighbors.’”

Update:  On Jan. 27, Dan Lepinski was informed by the North Richland Hills city manager that the city had invalidated the solar advocates' petition.

According to Lepinski, they used a little-known legal maneuver, an obscure provision in Texas law that allows for a petition and referendum challenge for "new" ordinances, but does not allow for the same challenge to "amendments" to an existing ordinance.  

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