Access to Solar Energy the Focus of Complaint in Douglass Township, PA

April 2012Articles In the Zone

On February 15, 2012, Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future (PennFuture) served Douglass Township, Berks County, a 30-day notice of intent to file a lawsuit on behalf of its clients, the Noonans, against their neighbors to enforce the municipality’s solar energy zoning law.

In September 2010, the Noonans installed by-right solar panels on their property to generate electricity for their residence. Upon doing so, they notified the Township as well as surrounding neighbors to secure protection from future structures on adjoining properties that may block exposure to the sun.

PennFuture’s complaint alleges that in response to the Noonans’ solar energy system, a neighbor planted various rees and shrubs that encroach on land and airspace that must remain open to assure proper access to solar energy.

Furthermore, the complaint alleges that Douglass Township then failed to take the necessary steps to enforce its zoning ordinance despite numerous requests from the Noonans to do so.

Douglass Township’s zoning ordinance states:

§27-743(2)(A) Solar Access. To obtain solar access protection, the owner of a solar collector shall file a statement with the Zoning Officer that a solar energy system has been installed. At such time, the owner shall also document that he has located his solar collector on his property to obtain maximum exposure to the sun and requires protection from future lawful buildings or structures located on adjoining properties. In addition, the owner shall document the land and airspace which must remain open to assure adequate solar access to his collector.

PennFuture maintains that the zoning law guarantees solar access protection for the owners of solar energy systems who file a statement with the township zoning officer. The Noonans installed solar panels on their property and filed the necessary paperwork, but their neighbors proceeded to plant tall, fast-growing trees that interfere with the Noonans’ right to solar access.

If ultimately heard before the courts, the extent to which the solar collectors’ current location maximizes exposure to the sun warranting protection as well as the specificity of documentation identifying the land and airspace to be protected may likely be argued. Additionally, questions over a property owner’s right to plant trees on his own property ,as well as whether such landscaping fits the description of prohibited “buildings or structures,” may also arise.