ST. JOSEPH — As St. Joseph leaders work to clarify the city's laws regulating solar panels, two families have filed lawsuits claiming they have a right to install the panels on their homes without city interference.
Milton and Mary Boyles were informed in November that their newly installed solar panels violated city ordinance, which applies to accessory structures. A second couple, Stephen and Annette Balogh, were denied a variance that would allow them to place solar panels on their home.
"Not every property is going to be able to utilize solar collectors because there may be trees in the way or other obstructions," City Planner Dustin Smith told the St. Joseph News-Press.
The Boyles' lawsuit cites a state law requiring that all solar panels be placed at a location on the property that allows the system to use 85 percent of the solar resource.
The city's ordinance requires all accessory structures to be located at least 50 feet from the front property line or behind the front of the main building. The Boyles' lawsuit, filed in Cole County Circuit Court, claims the state Public Service Commission's regulations on solar panels trump city ordinances.
However, Smith said the more restrictive ordinance often takes precedent in such disputes.
"I think that they may be misinterpreting that piece of the PSC regulations to imply that they can put them anywhere," Smith said.
The Boyles' attorney, Stephen Jeffery, believes the lawsuit will succeed because of a doctrine of pre-emption, which means state regulations authored on the same topic trump local ordinances.
Smith said the city is working on a new code to address solar panels, and he'll check with the PSC to make sure it doesn't conflict with state rules.
"I don't want it to sound like I am against solar panels," Smith said. "I don't think you'll find anyone that's more supportive for alternative energies. But there are some standards that need to be followed and I think our codes reflect that."