Trouble in Missouri: The fight for solar rights

Robin Whitlock Thursday, 01 August 2013


When Jim and Frances Babb tried to install solar panels on their property, they ran into serious opposition. Thereafter followed a fight for solar rights that is still going on, and not just in Missouri...

Trouble in Missouri: The fight for solar rights

Clarkson Valley is an affluent bedroom community in the western suburbs of St. Louis, Missouri. It’s approximately 800 household have some of the highest family income levels in the state and in the center of the city’s 2.5 mile area is an exclusive, private country club, where if rumors hold true has annual dues in excess of a working man’s yearly salary. Homes here start at about 2 to 3 times the home prices in other parts of the state. The homes are large, full of amenities and sit on minimum one acre lots. You would think perhaps that this is one community that would be very keen to ‘go solar’ since it certainly has the wealth available to install a great deal of clean, green energy infrastructure.

However, all is not good in this community as far as solar energy is concerned. Householders who want to install solar panels on their rooftops have been prevented from doing so. The problem seems to originate from members of the community who hold traditional values and who don’t want anything ‘deviating from the norm’ and this idea is perpetuated by popular TV shows that reinforce the idea of solar panels devaluing property prices. On top of that, when Frances Babb and her husband tried to install panels on the front of her property, the local authority, City of Clarkson Valley, tried to implement a bill banning the installation of solar panels on properties.

It is worth bearing in mind that this episode is representative of challenges experienced by similar communities right across the US, and with this in mind REM spoke with Frances to find out what happened next and how this could transform the procedures for getting similar applications passed a great deal more easily in the future.

Tell us a bit more about Clarkson Valley…

We first came to Clarkson Valley 16 years ago, when Jim asked me to marry him. We bought 4.56 acres of land on a heavily wood lot at the end of a cul-de-sac. Due to the terrain, creeks and lot orientation it was one of the last lots to sell in a developed subdivision of modern homes. My husband and I spent almost 5 years of our life hand crafting our dream home. We built a Victorian style home, nestled in the woods. It has all of the architectural features of a home built in the 1890’s but with upgraded features which make it high tech, maintenance free and livable under today’s standards. We’re proud of what we’ve accomplished and we only want to make it better. That’s what makes this solar panel issue so hard for us to cope with.

Our mayor is 82 years old has been in charge of running things for decades.  City officials pride themselves in the fact that there are no grocery stores, gasoline stations, fast food restaurants, drug stores, strip malls, big box stores or anything of the like. In addition the city owns no buildings, land, streets and subcontracts out most of its services to other agencies.  According to the city’s website the basic objectives of the city are protection of individual safety, property, property values, and the environment. (How ironic!) The city sustains itself financially by receiving sales taxes collected from other cities in the county that elected to allow businesses to be built, collection of traffic fines, taxation of its residents, and franchise fees for products and services. With an annual budget close to 1 million dollars per year, residents in exchange get police protection, mosquito spraying, trash collection and code enforcement. 

How popular is solar in Missouri or has been so far?

Solar is just getting started in Missouri, with the passage of Proposition C in 2008 the solar rebates were established and the Renewable Energy Standards (RES) was enacted. That started the ball rolling. Solar has been growing exponentially ever since. But even with the RES in place, Missouri is still at 2.6% renewables, while the rest of the country averages about 13%.

What kind of opposition is being mobilised against solar in Missouri and by who?

Even though Missouri derives 82% of its energy from coal, I’m seeing opposition more at the grassroots level. Homeowners who live in fancy neighborhoods want to preserve the visual image of their community that they spent a great deal of money to buy into. Any kind of deviation from the norm is considered undesirable, if not harmful to those not ready to make the switch to solar energy. In a nutshell I’ve gotten more opposition from highly educated, high income white collar professionals than anyone else. People who I know are smart enough to educate themselves about the benefits of solar but either chose not to or chose to hold onto their stereotypes about solar energy.

Has there been any challenge(s) to the claims made by these bodies/individuals, e.g. regarding devaluation of properties due to aesthetics of solar?

There have been all kinds of studies done by governmental agencies as well as private companies that show that solar improves property values and that homes with solar sell faster than those without it. Furthermore it’s been noted that neighborhoods without solar sell for less than those that are allowed to use solar energy. Despite all of the information that’s readily available, people are still holding onto their traditional values. For decades homeowners have put more money into the front façade of their home than any other side to make it look pretty from the curb. Popular TV shows propagate the notion that anything ugly lowers property values. As a state we simply cannot let our energy policies be dictated by ideas depicted on popular Home and Garden TV shows.

And what attempts have been made, if any, to try and stop the removal of solar panels?

Other than the families that are suing there have been almost no efforts to stop the removal of solar panels. There have been 4 lawsuits filed by homeowners in Missouri who desire solar but have had difficulties and many other disputes that are not being litigated. Unfortunately, there have been significant efforts both in Missouri as well as other states to try to force the removal of systems or prevent the installations of systems.

Are there any vested interests working for these bodies that you know of? E.g. people with oil industry connections etc

Oil isn’t big in Missouri. Coal is the primary source of energy. I’ve seen some opposition by the utility companies because they lose part of their customer base and have to finance their capital improvements with fewer paying account holders. Plus they have to pay out part of their revenue as rebates to customers who install solar. Real estate agents selling exclusive homes and builders of high end properties expressed concerns about solar. They are worried they might lose business.

Is there any prospect of ‘solar rights laws’ being instituted in Missouri in order to protect homeowners?

Missouri already has a solar right law RSMo 442.012 that has been on the books since the late 1970s. Because of all the grief my city has put me through I’ve been working with a couple of Senators who plan to introduce additional legislation that will further protect homeowner’s right to utilize solar energy.

What happened in Clarkson Valley?

Golly what an adventure!  First my husband and I met with our neighbors who we thought might be able to see our system at some points during the year. They had no objections. Then we spoke with the rest of the neighbors on my street and told them about the project to see if they had any concerns. No objections were raised.  Next my husband and I attended two parties hosted by the subdivision and broadcast widely our intent to install solar on our south facing roof which was on the front of our house. There was lots of support at the parties.

Next we sent in our plans to the utility company for approval. They insure compliance with the Missouri Public Service Commission (PSC) rules that regulate safety and system sizes. After that we sent our plans to our subdivision trustees (our Home Owners Association - HOA) for their approval. Our HOA sent us a letter of approval stating they understood our system’s size and the panels would be on the front of the house. They acknowledged our house was minimally visible during the summer months of the year. On November 1, 2011 my husband, Jim, went to city hall to request a building permit. He included the letter of approval from our utility company which included our historical usage for the past year, the approval from our subdivision, the building plans and the manufacturer specifications for all of the equipment that we planned to install.

At that time there were no laws on the city’s books which regulated solar or required any public hearings. Later that night we attended the city council meeting. We were appalled that there was a new bill on the agenda that banned solar panels on the front of homes, ground mount arrays and awning systems. If the bill would have passed we wouldn’t be able to install a grid tied system because we wouldn’t pass the PSC rules. Needless to say we protested. So the city enacted a one month moratorium.

I was so angry that I called all of the solar installers in the state as well as the media. At the next month’s council meeting the solar installers came to object to what they claimed to be the most restrictive solar ordinance in Missouri. The media was there to report on the event. A local radio station picked up story earlier that day. Newspaper reporters came to take pictures of our house which was hidden beyond the trees.  Mystically, several of the aldermen called in sick to that council meeting, so the city didn’t have a quorum to hold the meeting.  Instead they held a working session and let their moratorium expire. The solar installers were there to protest. I protested that if the city didn’t want solar on the front of homes, then it must prefer seeing solar on the back of homes facing the golf course, or in plain view of the beautiful lakes in the community, or on the side of homes on busy streets during rush hour. My husband told the city about the solar rights act and informed them they could not simply ban solar on all south facing homes.  Offline my husband met with the building commissioner and the mayor and showed them the solar rights bills in Missouri and many other states, gave them information on best practices for permitting as recommended by the US Department of Energy, drafted a sensible ordinance, and provided them reasonable alternative locations

Next month the city backed down and instead passed an ordinance to require a special use permit which required a public hearing. This gave them the opportunity to reject anything they found unsightly, undesirable or not in the best interest of the city.  In addition they enacted strict fire codes which reduced the number of allowable panels on homes with complex rooflines and a number of other factors which unnecessarily increased the cost of systems – thus increasing the payback period and discouraging solar. They made special use permits for solar non-transferable thus discouraging solar from one of the largest demographic group of its residents who are young executives who transfer in and out of the area within just a few years. Thus forcing them to be in non-compliance the PSC rules that requires system to remain in place for their useful life which must at least 10 years and making it difficult for homeowners to achieve capital gains on their property improvements. They also restricted licensing of installers and designers of systems.

Since our building permit application was never acted upon, we decided to try and comply with all of the reasonable rules and request exceptions to the building codes for the ones that were totally ridiculous. In doing so we modified our plans to move about ½ the panels from the front roof onto the backyard to comply with 2012 fire codes.  We invited the mayor and council members out to our house and showed them what we were planning to install.

The city notified all of our neighbors within 500 feet to give their feedback. There were some naysayers, but despite that the Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z) recommended approval of our plans including our requested exceptions.  Around this timeframe the naysayers started coming out in force.  Neighbors complained that we were building a solar farm in a residential subdivision. Concerns were expressed that we were planning to turn our home into a cash cow by installing solar. There were issues raised about our house being too tall for us to climb onto the roof keep the panels clean regularly. Concerns were raised about the deer in our woods possibly colliding with the panels. The mayor was worried about critters (small animals and rodents) possibly nesting under the ground mounts. Questions were asked how panels would withstand the ever fluctuating temperatures and climate in Missouri.  Would the panels warp, crack, break, shatter, catch fire, or rust?  A neighbor was concerned that the panels would fly off the roof like Frisbees in the first strong wind or that the glare from the panels might blind drivers who would run off the road and crash into people’s houses. That same neighbor bought a doll house with a red roof and mocked up what our system would look like, given our roof layout. She proudly rotated the doll house, exclaiming how ugly our house would look with solar.

An alderman asked what we would do if a tornado or strong storm came along and blew down all of the trees that blocked the ground mount panels from the view of neighbors. Another neighbor was concerned about what the system might look like when he stood on top of his bathtub during the winter and looked through the trees at our house. Another neighbor didn’t like our Victorian architecture and the cell towers in the adjoining property in the neighboring community and was concerned that the value of his home would be impeded if we installed solar, as a result of all of these factors.  Lastly a respected real estate agent gave testimony that he feared the visible solar panels might create a visual taint that might cause prospective homebuyers from even getting out of the car to look at nearby homes for sale.

The alderman then voted 6-0 to deny us permission to install solar, without giving any reason whatsoever. Their ordinance allowed the council to make any changes to our system that they desired. Their decision was to say no and not tell us any way to rectify the situation. So we sued.  Since that time our HOA enacted new rules restricting placement of solar systems.  A resident on a nearby street suggested that if we didn’t like the way things were done around here, we could always move.  Another neighbor was so upset that he demanded that our HOA enact fines, sue us, put a lien on our house, garnish our wages and make an example out of us so that no one would ever consider doing such a terrible thing again!

And how did you manage to win the case?

First we had 2 state laws on our side - the solar rights act and the PSC rules that allow all account holders in good standing to participate in the solar rebate program. Upon the recommendation of the Missouri Solar Industries Installers Association (MOSEIA), my husband and I selected their attorney to represent us. He was experienced with both environmental law as well as municipal law. We solicited the help of MOSEIA to be a co-plaintiff in our lawsuit. We also sued the PSC. It was their rules that our city was violating which kept us from participating in the solar rebate program. The PSC did nothing to enforce their rules against Clarkson Valley. Because we sued both a state agency (the PSC) as well as our city, we were eligible to sue in either our home county or the county where the PSC resided, which was near the state capital building, halfway across the state. To level the playing field we felt that we would get a fair trial outside our local area and away from where the media had reported our story. Also that would preclude any possible influence that our wealthy community had with the court. I spent a lot of time in prayer, praying not only for our situation but praying for God’s intervention with my city officials so they would educate themselves and do the right thing. I solicited help from the media and other environmental groups to increase public awareness about the benefits of solar and what was going on in my community. But mainly we won because we were on the right side of the issue – to protect the environment.

A building permit in Clarkson Valley costs about $69.  We’ve spent nearly 10,000 times that amount trying to get one to be issued to us.  The court ordered Clarkson Valley to issue us permits within one business day and if they failed to do so were allowed to build under the court’s authority.  To date, a year and nine months later, we still do not have a Clarkson Valley building permit.

Clarkson Valley is appealing the court’s decision.  If we continue to prevail we’ll continue to have a great solar energy system that will greatly improve our property value and offset our carbon footprint. Our victory might preclude both our city as well as other communities in Missouri from doing the same thing to their residents. However if we don’t sustain our victory, I think public outcry would be so great that new laws would be passed to prevent further abuse. So win or lose it will still be a victory for solar energy in Missouri.

What procedures do you have to follow when attempting to install solar in Missouri? For example, permits and so on?

There are rules passed by the Missouri Public Service Commission that require compliance of grid tied systems for safety reasons in order to qualify for a rebate.  The PSC also regulates system sizes based upon historical usage.  The PSC rules are enforced by the local utility company. Getting approval can take up to 3 months to review plans on systems larger than 10KW. Smaller systems can take up to one month. Once installed the local utility is allowed to perform inspections to insure systems were properly installed per the plans. Generator and bi-directional meters are not installed if there are safety issues with the installation.

As far as cities go, each city in Missouri can make up their own laws. Some cities support solar and make the process a ministerial duty without any hassles, other cities want to have greater control so they add roadblocks, delays, unreasonable requirements that are based on aesthetics or make laws designed to discourage the use of solar by making installation of systems cost ineffective or make installer licensing requirements very restrictive and require signoff by a professional engineer or licensed architect. It’s becoming more common for cities to require homeowners to go through Planning and Zoning in order to get permission to install their systems.  A few NIMBY neighbors equipped with miss-information about solar can totally nix a solar project. If the homeowner makes it through the P&Z process, the board of alderman has to also approve in order to get a special use permit. Next the building inspector and architectural review board has to approve the plans in order to get a building permit. If the plans don’t meet building codes homeowners can either revise their plans or apply for a variance - which again is another public meeting. My city subcontracts out its electrical inspections to St. Louis County, so an electrical permit is also required by the county. The Fire Marshall requires a permit for commercial installations, but cities do their own residential fire inspections as a part of their regular building permit process. Each city can make up their own fire code rules.

In Missouri there are a lot of homes in Home Owner Associations. HOA approval is required in order for solar plans to move forward. In some cases the HOA requirements can be in conflict with city requirements, so homeowners can’t proceed without suing one party or the other. Most HOAs don’t have specific rules concerning solar, so they use their generic phrase that the HOA board has full discression to approve or deny systems with or without giving an explanation.

Are there any incentives schemes, such as feed-in tariffs, available either in Missouri or the US generally?

Missouri requires large utility companies to offer $2 per watt rebates to all account holders in good standing.  Next year the rebates are reduced to $1.50 per watt and will continue to step down over the next few years until they are no longer offered. Solar Renewable Energy Credits (SRECs) are available. Their value fluctuates based upon the utility company’s ability to meet their Renewable Energy Standards (RES). We got in at crest of their value at $100 per megawatt hour. A year later their value was reduced to $50 per megawatt hour and this year they are worth only $5 per megawatt hour. Next year grid tied solar system owners will have to forfeit 10 years work of SREC in exchange for getting the rebate, which will step down from $2/watt to a $1.50 per watt.

There are net metering laws in Missouri. Customers are credited the full retail rate for power sent to the grid up until it equals the amount of power consumed by the home. Any excess power per month is sold back to the utility company at wholesale rates.

Recently a finance program passed in the St. Louis area that allowed homeowners to install solar with no money down. Instead they would be assessed a special charge on their property taxes each year to cover the upfront costs of installing their system.

Each state or municipality in the US can pass their own rules, but in general similar rules are adopted in most states.

The Internal Revenue Service allows a 30% tax credit for installing solar after the rebate amount is taken into consideration.

Can the decisions of the opposing bodies be overruled by higher authorities?

Normally a decision of the building commissioner can be appealed by the city’s Board of Adjustment. This again can be a public hearing. The Board of Adjustment members are usually appointed positions by city officials. If the Board of Adjustment denies the permit, the property owner can hire a lawyer and sue to seek relief from the court. In our situation the decision to deny us wasn’t made by the building commissioner, it was made by the Board of Alderman, so we had to take the matter to court.

How do you see things working out for solar in Missouri in the near future?

I think solar has a great potential for growth in Missouri. The price of equipment has dropped drastically; the $2/watt rebate and the 30% federal tax credits are still respectable. The payback period for installing solar is reasonable. In the long run it is cheaper than buying electricity from the grid. There are plenty of opportunities to purchase systems with no up-front costs. Meanwhile electric rates are on a steady incline.

On the downside however, the rebates will phased out over the next few years and already the SRECs have dropped to the point they are basically worthless. Utility companies are not required to buy SRECs in state. As solar increases in popularity the 1% rate cap that utility companies are allowed to charge ratepayers for solar rebates might get used up. Then there would be no more rebates issued until the following year.

I think there are several things that could help make solar more common place. First, solar needs to be installed in very visible locations, so people can get accustomed to seeing it. Anything that’s new and different always catches a person’s eye, but after a while the newness fades and it becomes the “new normal”. That acceptance period varies greatly for individuals. Getting it out there will help people overcome their stereotypes that solar is ugly.

Solar could be better marketed as progressive, cool, sexy and the thing that smart people do. We need to get the word out that solar IMPROVES property values. There’s not a whole lot of marking of solar in this area. Mostly it’s word of mouth advertising. We could use some bill boards, advertisements in upscale magazines and promotional postcards sent to homeowners in the mail.

We need standardization and simplification of permitting practices. We need a better grievance process whereby there are consequences for disallowing or overly restricting solar access. Solar in Missouri is a property right. That concept is hard for some people to accept since zoning laws have been used in the past to prevent locally undesirable land uses. Most of all Missourians need laws similar to other more progressive states that prevent HOAs and municipalities from doing what Clarkson Valley did to us.

Frances Babb is a solar rights advocate who lives with her husband Jim in Clarkson Valley, Missouri. As well as fighting her own case for solar, she helps others to protect their legal rights to access to solar power. REM will continue to follow this story with great interest as things develop.

Further information:

Judge rules for Clarkson Valley couple over solar panels (St Louis Post)

Frances Babb (LinkedIn)

Frances Babb (Twitter)

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