Coral Gables resident was denied a permit to install solar panels because they were “aesthetically displeasing”
In Coral Gables, land of manicured lawns, stylish Spanish Mission-style homes, and strict rules for keeping itself beautiful, how good your solar is depends on which direction you face.
Just ask Daniel Martinez.
Last year, Martinez decided to install solar panels on his 1960s ranch house in the South Gables, the tonier end of the City Beautiful. He hired a solar installer who inspected the house and designed an array of panels that would give him optimum power. He also opted for less obtrusive, but more expensive all-black panels and lined them up vertically to eliminate unsightly gaps. But when he took his plan to the city, there was a problem: to be cost-effective, some of the panels needed to be on his southward facing roof, the side that faced the street.
Coral Gables, the city that also prides itself on confronting the perils of climate change and last year banned plastic bags, said no deal.
“I expected them to be reasonable about it, to listen and say, ‘Oh yeah, it makes sense,” he said. “Instead, they’ve just been very, very stubborn.”
The position has put the city in a predicament not unfamiliar to residents trying to navigate its byzantine building codes. Publicly, the city advocates for more green initiatives: it has vowed to entirely power the city with clean energy by 2035 and renewable energy by the end of the century; requires new buildings over 20,000-square feet to be LEED-certified; and lists six easy steps for installing solar panels on its web page. It joined the Clean Energy Green Corridor Program to provide solar financing for residents. Park benches even have solar-powered charging stations.
But the reality of installation, advocates say, is far different. Installers have reported at least 30 homeowners dropped plans after the city put aesthetics over efficiency and made the panels financially unfeasible, they say.
Solar advocates also say the city is also violating Florida’s solar rights law, first adopted in the 1980s and expanded over the years to encourage renewable energy. The act prohibits cities and other governing bodies from having rules that prevent “effective operation” of solar panels.
In response to questions, City Attorney Miriam Soler Ramos provided an opinion by the city’s previous attorney, Craig Leen, now a senior director at the U.S. labor department. Leen said the city was not violating the solar rights law because it hadn’t adopted any rules blocking solar but was simply allowing its board of architects to consider aesthetics. The board ensures architecture preserves the “traditional aesthetic character” of the city, according to the city website.
“They are an architectural review board that does not apply any law. They simply review the design based on each of their views as informed by their professional qualifications,” Ramos said in an email.
But solar advocates dispute the interpretation and say restricting the position of panels effectively impedes operation.
“The Gables has always taken this kind of stuff to the extreme. Remember the pickup wars?” said South Miami Mayor Phil Stoddard, referring to a ban on parking pickup trucks in driveways overnight that residents finally overturned in 2012. South Miami has no restrictions on the placement of panels and plans on soon committing to using entirely clean energy by 2050 as part of a Sierra Club campaign to encourage solar use.
“It’s unconscionable and you can quote me on that,” he said. “I think the Gables is ultimately better than that.”
Martinez said he first decided to install panels after Irma. He and his wife bought their four-bedroom home two years ago and planned to make it their forever home with their two kids, now 2 and 5. They ripped up the floors, replaced rotting cast-iron pipes, raised a sunken living room and remodeled the kitchen and bathrooms. When Irma took aim at South Florida, they evacuated, trapped in traffic for 12 hours with their kids trying to make it to Orlando. When they returned and found their house steamy with a fetid refrigerator after a week without power, they decided to switch to solar. They already drove electric cars, so it seemed like a natural next step.
Martinez said he joined the local solar co-op. But he said when he tried find a local contractor, they turned him down, saying it was too hard to get permits in Coral Gables. Jody Finver, the co-op’s local contact and Miami-Dade director for Solar United Neighbors, helped put together a list of contractors, which Martinez and other residents then used to select a contractor.
Finver said the Gables stands out for the level of difficulty in installing panels.
“They have a policy of denying all street-facing arrays,” she said. “We have 40 co-ops across the state and this is the hardest anybody has had to work to go solar.”
If the board is dictating the location of panels that interfere with effective operation, the city is violating the law, said Colleen Kettles, an attorney and program director for the Florida Solar Energy Center, who said the city also fought solar-powered water heaters decades ago.
“They can have a policy that deals with each homeowner individually, but if the net effect is they’re prohibiting these solar panels, they’re in violation of the law. It’s clear as day,” she said. “It is perfectly legitimate for them to have guidelines, but those guidelines can’t prohibit solar.”
After the Gables architectural review board turned him down in October, Martinez said he was told he could resubmit plans without street-facing panels. Instead, he decided to appeal and had a conflict resolution meeting with a city attorney, a member of the architectural review board and a member of the architectural review board. At the meeting, Martinez said he agreed to reduce the number of south-facing panels from 19 to 12, but the group wouldn’t budge.
“It’s an economic issue. I have to justify to my wife why I’m spending $30,000 on this,” he said. “She cares about the environment, but she also cares about the budget. She wants to see why this investment will pay off.”
Martinez said the city suggested he contact his local neighborhood association to ask about the panels. So he did, and got a ringing endorsement.
“We think this is absolutely ridiculous,” said Sue Kawalerski, president of the Riveria Neighborhood Association. “When it comes to a homeowner going before the board, they make up all kinds of reasons why something can’t aesthetically be done. And yet that same board reviews a developer and they let the developers blow through all those rules.”
Kawalerski said the association submitted a letter on Martinez’ behalf and wants solar installation made easier for homeowners.
“We don’t want to abandon aesthetics, but at some point you just have to say, what’s better?” she said.
So far, Martinez estimates he has spent an additional $2,000 trying to get his plan approved. Because his appeal is being heard before a special master and includes a public hearing, he said the city required him to provide a mailing list and labels for all residents within a thousand feet of the house. He also decided to mail his own letter to neighbors pleading his case. In addition to his installer’s recommendation, Martinez also purchased a gauge to measure the sun’s intensity to provide additional evidence supporting the south-facing panels. The hearing is set for Jan. 15.
“This is not just about my personal situation and my panels. I also didn’t want other residents to go through this,” Martinez said. “I’m a lawyer and I can represent myself. Other people, they just couldn’t do it. They see these obstacles and just walk away.”
An earlier version of this story misstated the year Florida adopted a solar rights law. The first law was adopted in 1980 and expanded over the years. Solar United Neighbors helps residents find contractors, but does not recommend anyone.