South Miami

South Miami is going solar, but not everyone is on board

South Miami Mayor Philip Stoddard in front of City Hall in April 2016.
South Miami Mayor Philip Stoddard in front of City Hall in April 2016.

Anyone building a new house in South Miami — or in some cases renovating existing ones — will have to install solar panels under a groundbreaking law approved by the City Commission Tuesday night.

The measure, the first of its kind in Florida, will take effect Sept 18. South Miami will follow the lead of some California cities in requiring new buildings to go solar.

Representatives from local builders’ groups are the harshest critics of South Miami’s decision, arguing that although the idea has merits, it should not be a mandate.

But South Miami Mayor Philip Stoddard, a biology professor at Florida International University who has championed the measure for years, celebrated the commission’s decision.

“We made history [Tuesday] night. We’re the first city in the United States outside of California to approve this,” Stoddard said. “It’s not going to save the world by itself but it’s going to get people thinking about [solar].”

Before the commission voted, several city residents commented on the law.

Resident David Rifkind, who has already installed solar panels in his home, commended the commission for “making an example” that will be seen globally.

“I am very grateful and very proud as a citizen of South Miami for this measure regarding solar panels,” he said. “It’s amazing how this pushes us forward in a global conversation about the small incremental ways that we can make change.”

But Matthew Barket, who said he lives in a smaller, older home in South Miami, was concerned the new law could be more harmful than good.

“I am a really big fan of technology in all aspects — sustainable energy, computers, you name it — and I’ve advocated for these types of measures before,” he said. “The issue is really a cost benefit analysis here. I think you are not going to receive the type of return on your investment that’s being portrayed.”

Barket urged the commission to hold off and see what new technology is developed before creating the mandate.

The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that a medium-sized system costs about $11,000 after factoring in federal credits. South Miami has waived its permit fees for solar installations.

Builders groups, including the Builders Association of South Florida, said that the city should instead consider an incentive program like tax breaks for residents who choose to go solar.

“To me, if I’m going to put money out and [the city’s] going to encourage you to do it, that seems like a better approach,” said Truly Burton, executive vice president of the association. “I think the city has a good idea, and it has merit, but put your money where your mouth is.”

And Eric Montes de Oca, president-elect of the Miami chapter of the Latin Builders Assocation, wrote a letter to the Miami Herald before Tuesday’s vote urging the commission to consider incentives instead of making solar a requirement.

“If anyone who does not want to have solar panels, then they are not welcome to live in South Miami. This, I would argue, runs counter to our individual freedoms,” Montes de Oca wrote. “It has the potential to increase considerably the cost to construct a new home and negatively affect new home construction within South Miami.”

Under the rules, new residential construction would require 175 square feet of solar panel to be installed per 1,000 square feet of sunlit roof area, or one panel with 2.75 kilowatt capacity per 1,000 square feet of living space, whichever is less. If the house is built under existing trees, the shade may exempt it.

The ordinance is based on similar laws in San Francisco and Santa Monica, California.

Home renovations that replace more than 75 percent of the structure or extend the structure by more than 75 percent would also have to follow the new ordinance. But a builder who installs a smaller new roof will not be required to install panels.

The new law applies to single-family residences that are larger than 1,100 square feet, including townhomes and some multi-story residential buildings. The law doesn’t apply to commercial properties.

South Miami’s building department will handle inspections, and all permitting for the solar panels will be done through the city.

The ordinance won final approval Tuesday on a 4-1 vote with Commissioner Josh Liebman voting no. He said he doesn’t oppose solar but believes residents should have the freedom to choose whether to go solar.

“As a community we can certainly educate and incentivize the electorate to make the right decision. Personally I believe that’s the best approach,” Liebman said.

He estimated that the city receives about $1.4 million in fees that residents pay on their FPL bills, or nearly 7 percent of the city’s budget and expressed concern about losing any of it if power consumption drops as a result of the solar requirement.

However, South Miami is about 2.3 square miles, is mostly residential and, according to city leaders, mostly built out. Liebman said that most construction will likely be builders adding to existing properties. Stoddard added that the city received only about 10 building permits for new construction last year and averages five to 10 permits annually.

FPL spokeswoman Alys Daly said that the company urges homeowners to research whether solar will be a wise investment for them. She said the average residential bill in Florida is about 25 percent lower than the national average.

“That’s why the payback for a solar system in our area takes much longer than it does in other states like California or Hawaii, because they have higher bills,” Daly said. “We want to make sure that our customers always do the math whether they’re in South Miami or anywhere else.”

Stoddard and the city have been at the forefront of local environmental activism and in encouraging additional use of solar. The mayor was one of many vocal opponents of Amendment 1 in 2016, a measure that would have added a new protection for the regulated electric utility industry by creating a barrier to entry by competitors.

The amendment was ultimately defeated by voters after media reports revealed that the measure was presented as pro solar when it was an attempt to limit alternatives. The utility industry spent nearly $22 million promoting the amendment.

Lance Dixon: 305-376-3708, @LDixon_3