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Whitehall Council restricts alternative heating equipment

| Wednesday, April 23, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Whitehall homeowners hoping to install ground-mounted solar panels to heat a water tank or a room could be out of luck.

Council members — in an attempt to keep solar panels from “popping up” across the borough — adopted an ordinance last week that provides regulations for anyone looking to install solar energy equipment.

“We have to pass it in order for it to protect us,” Councilman Phil Lahr said of the measure, which amends the borough zoning code. “You have to have ordinances to control stuff. If not, you would have someone come into this borough and create havoc and believe me we've had those situations many, many times.”

The ordinance regulates solar energy systems that could be mounted on a building, specifying that those systems must conform to building height requirements and be uniform with the building. But it prohibits the use of freestanding solar energy systems in the borough.

“We have to start somewhere,” said Councilwoman Kathy DePuy. “We can't just let people put solar panels anywhere.”

The prohibition of freestanding solar systems brought concern from some residents.

Greg Winks, a Whitehall resident and clean energy specialist with Clean Energy Resources, which is an adviser for institutions on clean energy options and helped borough officials draft the ordinance, said the limitation puts an “unfair burden” on residents whose homes do not allow for a rooftop solar system.

“If a homeowner wanted to look at reducing their energy bill — implementing solar — the first place they're going to look is on the rooftop,” Winks said.

Winks asked officials to table the ordinance, so that it could be changed to allow for ground-mounted solar energy systems only when a roof installation is not feasible.

Resident Richard Weidman suggested the borough's rules for solar systems be similar to those for above-ground swimming pools, which must be in the backyard at a certain distance from a property line.

“I personally think an above-ground swimming pool with a deck around it, I can't think of a bigger eyesore. I can't see why we're afraid of solar panels and how we think it's going to devalue people's property,” Weidman said.

Residents whose roofs don't meet requirements for a solar energy system could apply for a variance, solicitor Irving Firman said. Yet under that option, the resident would have to prove a need for the system.

Lahr said borough leaders do not want to see freestanding solar systems in the borough.

“We feel that that would be a distraction to a piece of property, if that starts to happen,” he said.

Whitehall officials say they know of no solar energy systems in the borough now.

If the ordinance repeatedly restricts residents from installing the equipment, they could make a case to have it changed, Mayor James Nowalk said. Leaders said they passed the ordinance to ensure problems don't start later.

Stephanie Hacke is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5818 or shacke@tribweb.com.

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