Northeast Tarrant

Solar panels get green light in North Richland Hills

After a survey of residents, the city appears ready to drop the most contentious requirement for installation of solar panels.

Mayor Oscar Trevino said he expects the City Council to stop mandating that residents obtain a special-use permit to install roof-top solar panels that face a street.

The council voted in December to require the permit, and solar advocates have since circulated a petition calling for either repeal of the rule or a city vote on the issue.

Last year, the city had an uptick in applications for solar panels and the council required the permits in an effort to set standards before the panels proliferated.

“There’s not enough right now to really make a difference,” Trevino said.

Solar advocate Dan Lepinski said he is skeptical as to whether city officials are serious about dropping the provision.

“I’ll believe it when I see it,” Lepinski said. “They’re going to drag their feet on this.”

The process for getting the permit, which can take 30 to 45 days, requires that neighbors be notified of the project, a notice be published in a local newspaper and that public hearings occur before the city Planning and Zoning Commission and City Council.

The council can refuse to issue the permit. A special-use permit typically costs $582, though the council waived the fee in January.

Residents installing panels not facing a street only need the much-less-cumbersome standard permit.

The December vote set off a firestorm of protests in a city that tends to be politically quiet. North Richland Hills has not had a competitive council election since 2012. No one challenged the incumbents this year, so the May municipal election was canceled.

Solar energy advocates said the decision to require a special-use permit created unnecessary red tape and represented an intrusion into a homeowner’s property rights.

“We don’t need the aesthetic restrictions,” Lepinski said. “The community doesn’t want the aesthetic restrictions, and the city’s own survey now proves that.”

Trevino said that the mailed survey did not indicate a strong position either way regarding the special-use permit. The city survey came after the January petition by solar energy advocates calling for a repeal or a city vote on the issue.

Residents were asked several questions in the survey. With regard to the special-use permit, they were asked: “If a neighbor wants to install roof mounted solar panels, should you be notified and given the opportunity to provide input?”

The city divided the responses between those who signed the petition and those who did not.

The results show that 13 percent of the petition-signers and 20 percent of those who did not sign the petition wanted to be notified only if the panels were visible from the street. Another 14 and 21 percent respectively wanted to be notified only if the panels were visible from their yards, while 4 percent and 12 percent of respondents respectively wanted to be notified regarding any roof-mounted system.

But 70 percent of petition-signers and 47 percent of non-petition signers said they should not be notified about any roof-mounted system, for an average 61 percent of respondents, according to the city-released results.

The December vote included other provisions — for example, ground-mounted solar systems must be screened by a fence. These less-controversial rules are expected to remain, Trevino said.

The special-use permit issue needs to go through the Planning and Zoning Commission and then to the City Council before it can be dropped. But Trevino said he expects the change to go through.

Solar energy advocate Lori De La Cruz said she will reserve judgment until she sees what finally happens.