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Nazareth, Pa., United States

Friday, January 27, 2017

Bethlehem's ZHB Unanimously Denies Homeowner a Solar Panel Variance

Pawel Zelinski is willing to invest $23,000 to install solar panels on his 9th Avenue home. He cites "free energy" and :being green" as his two chief reasons. But he wanted to install them between 2' and 2'4" away from the edge of the roof instead of the 3' setback required by Bethlehem's Zoning Ordinance. So he was at the Zoning Hearing Board on January 24 for what is called a dimensional variance. This is a mechanism under which  zoning hearing boards can allow some deviation from the strict letter of the law.  But unanimously, the Board denied Zelinski's request for relief.

The reason for this denial is because Assistant Fire Chief Craig Baer made an unusual appearance and testified that this three feet setback is a matter of safety. He explained that when a one or two-story home is on fire, the first thing firefighters do is break a hole in the roof to act as a vent.  If a solar panel is too close to the edge, that could endanger their lives. In addition to limiting access, it exposes them to the danger of electrocution,especially when thee are solar shingles that often go unnoticed. Thy also run the risk of tripping at a solar rood display, and the increased weight makes structural collapse more likely. In addition, solar batteries exposed to a fire emit caustic fumes.

According to Baer, technology is advancing faster than fire codes and zoning ordinances.

Last September, firefighters were forced to watch a 300,000 sq ft Dietz and Watson warehouse in Burlington County, NJ, literally go up in smoke because the 7,000 solar panels on its roof made it too risky for them.

After the hearing, Chief Baer and Zelinski agreed to work together to come up with a new configuration so that the homeowner can go green while firefighters are assured they will be safe if they are ever needed.


6 comments:

Anonymous said...

That 3' setback is a standard in codes, for just the reason stated. It is sometimes granted relief. Well written post, Bernie.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting. Thanks for the info BO

Rolas said...

2 other homes in the past couple months installed solar panels on their homes with variances for setbacks. In fact the panels go right to the edge of the eaves in those cases.

Sounds like this guy could sue the city as no issues were brought against the other homeowners who got variances.

Bernie O'Hare said...

I'd love to see that lawsuit. Obviously, the fire department was unaware what was planned in the other cases,and there was no evidence presented that this was unsafe. I was present for at least one of those cases. The homeowner has every right to appeal this denial, but told me he will instead work with a fire department interested in his safety. My guess is that the only people who would keep track of solar panel variances are those in the business of selling them. You should have a little more respect for your customers.

Jeff Fox said...

"After the hearing, Chief Baer and Zelinski agreed to work together to come up with a new configuration so that the homeowner can go green while firefighters are assured they will be safe if they are ever needed"

There you go, a resident working together with the fire chief to find a solution so the municipality can grant a variance so everyone's needs can be met. That's the way it should work. Yes, codes and regulations can be onerous, complicated and confusing. It can indeed be frustrating and patience would be required. But we can work together for the common good. We don't need to be antagonistic and angry all the time to effect positive change. Bernie, thanks for including the last paragraph in this article, which IMHO is the most important.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Jeff, They will likely work it out in a way that no variance is needed or sought. Also, local governments need to look at their zoning ordinances. I would suggest that the fire department receive notice of every home that wants to install solar panels on the roof. Every home that has one should have some exterior marking so firefighters know. Also, there should be marked walkway on the roof. Clean alternative energy is a good thing. But so is public safety.