The city will revisit recent restrictions on solar panels after the city attorney announced that North Richland Hills cannot move forward on a petition aimed at repealing the restrictions.
City Attorney George Staples told the City Council recently that state law bans communities from changing zoning ordinances through the petition process. Solar supporters said they submitted 874 signatures Jan. 14 demanding that the council rescind the restrictions or let residents vote on the issue in a special election.
In response to Staples’ statement, the council agreed to take action by waive certain fees and to conduct a random survey of city residents to gauge public support for the restrictions.
The Planning and Zoning Commission is expected to revisit the restrictions following the survey. The commission is then expected to send its recommendation to the council for final consideration, a process expected to take a few months.
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“Given the number of signatures that are presented, I personally think we need to revisit the ordinance,” Mayor Oscar Trevino said. ”I think we need to take some time to survey our residents … to see exactly what they do want.”
Solar advocate Dan Lepinski said residents who want repeal the restrictions will now have to explore their options. “We’re not attorneys,” he said.
The council in December placed limits on ground mounted solar systems based on lot size and required that homeowners get a special use permit to install solar panels on the portion of the roof that faces a street.
Residents consequently can get a standard permit if their solar panels do not face a street at a cost of $200 to $500, depending on the project. They should receive the permit within seven to 10 business days. A special use permit costs $582. The special use permit process, which can take 30 to 45 days, requires that neighbors be notified of the project, a notice 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.
The council’s latest decision removes the $582 fee. The other requirements remain in effect while city officials sort out the issue.
Under the City Charter, if the number of signatures equals at least 25 percent of the number of people who voted in the last city election, then the council must reconsider the ordinance. If the council does not repeal the ordinance, then it goes to a special election.
City officials determined that the solar energy advocates submitted 770 valid signatures, above the needed 733 signatures. But state law supersedes city ordinances, officials said.
The ordinance was approved to give neighbors a chance to comment on a homeowner’s plans to install solar panels, city officials said. The neighbors may object to the way they look.
Solar energy supporters, however, say the ordinance creates an unnecessary burden, calling special use permits expensive and that the city could refuse to issue them. They said solar energy significantly cuts their utility costs and reduces water usage and pollution from coal-fired power plants.
Solar panels work best on a roof when they face south, Lepinski said. Homeowners will have to go through the special permit process based on the orientation of their homes, Lepinski said.