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Battle over solar energy heats up in Clarkson Valley

Battle over solar energy heats up in Clarkson Valley

Jim and Frances Babb

Jim and Frances Babb stand outside their Clarkson Valley home Saturday, Dec. 3, 2011. The pair encountered opposition when they submitted plans to the city in an effort to install a solar array for powering their house. Garvey Scott/ Special to the Post-Dispatch

CLARKSON VALLEY • The fuss over the solar panels remains baffling to Jim and Frances Babb.

Their home sits 360 feet from the street and is surrounded by sycamore, oak and Bradford pear trees. In the summer, you can hardly see it from the curb.

Nevertheless, for the past two years, the couple’s Victorian Queen Anne-style home has been a flash point in the battle over solar energy in St. Louis’ suburbs.

The saga is scheduled to resume on Tuesday when the Babbs ask a Cole County judge to hold Clarkson Valley in contempt of court for failing to issue them permits for 100 solar panels on their property.

The Babbs want the city fined $1,000 for each day it fails to issue the permits.

In June, 2012, Circuit Judge Daniel Green ordered the city to issue the Babbs a building and special use permit so they could build their solar project, calling the city’s actions “arbitrary, capricious, unreasonable and an abuse of discretion.” The suit was heard in Cole County because the Missouri Public Service Commission, another defendant, is situated there.

If Clarkson Valley failed to issue the permits, Green wrote, the Babbs could begin construction anyway, and that’s what the couple did.

The city, meanwhile, appealed Green’s order, only to be rebuffed by a three-judge panel at the Missouri Court of Appeals, which in November, unanimously affirmed Green’s decision.

But the city still didn’t issue permits. Instead, Clarkson Valley sent the couple a letter in January, requesting they fill out a new permit application, as required by a recent city ordinance that regulates solar energy, according to a motion filed by the Babbs’ lawyer.

A few weeks a later, the city revised its position, and in another letter said the Babbs only needed to schedule a city inspection of their project.

Clarkson Valley Mayor Scott Douglass said the city wants to ensure the project is safe and meets fire codes.

“We read the appeals court decision, which says they can keep their panels but have to go by the local building code,” Douglass said. “We are not against solar panels.”

But the Babbs’ lawyer, Stephen G. Jeffery, said the project has already been inspected by St. Louis County, as well as Ameren Missouri.

The wording in Green’s decision “is crystal clear,” Jeffery said. “It says, ‘The city shall issue the permits.’”

The solar power system cost the Babbs about $100,000, but they received a $50,000 rebate from Ameren, as well as a 30 percent federal tax credit, to offset expenses. The Babbs have 52 panels mounted on their roof and an additional 48 on the ground. During some months, their electric bills are zero, they said.

“If it wasn’t for the attorney’s fees, it would have paid for itself,” Jim Babb said.

Even if the Babbs prevail in court on Tuesday, they could face another legal battle within their subdivision: Kehrs Mill Estates.

The Babbs said subdivision trustees mailed a ballot to homeowners recently for a vote on a special assessment to fund litigation against them. The subdivision had previously signed off on the panels.

Kehrs Mill chairman Artie Ahrens said any vote probably wouldn’t take place until May. He declined to answer additional questions and then hung up the phone.

For the past few years, solar energy in the suburbs has pitted subdivision aesthetics against environmental sensibilities and the desire for cheap electricity.

It’s led a handful of cities to consider legislation that mostly regulate where panels can be placed, for appearance sake.

Jeffery said he represents clients in Wildwood and Jefferson County engaged in conflicts over solar energy.

Clarkson Valley, Douglass said, has also received two more solar applications since the Babbs first requested permits in 2011. One of those projects is under construction. The other application is pending, Douglass said.

The Babbs ordeal has turned Frances Babb into a advocate. She’s lobbied state legislators over the past year for Senate Bill 579, which bars homeowners associations from prohibiting solar energy.

The Babbs said their struggle for solar power has been worthwhile but not without hardship.

“We are pioneers in our community,” Frances Babb said. “It’s really hard because we feel as though we have done a good thing.”

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Stephen Deere is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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