A Solar Power Struggle in Town and Country

Dr. Joseph Gira planted a dozen pine trees to block his neighbors’ view of the spot — a slope at the edge of his backyard between a stone retaining wall and a utility pole.

But the trees couldn’t quell criticism of the solar array he wants to put there.

So he planted a dozen more.

The complaints continued. Landscaping isn’t permanent. Solar panels are. What if the trees die?

“Nobody wants ugly,” said Dr. Dorothy Cooke, a retired internist and neighbor of Gira’s.

Now, Gira, 39, an ophthalmologist, is considering a fence.

“The price keeps going up,” he said.

Gira’s proposal for a nearly 1,000-square-foot array of pole-mounted solar panels to power his new luxury home is something Town and Country hasn’t seen.

Officials have kicked the plan around a lot lately. It went from planning and zoning to the Board of Aldermen and back to planning and zoning.

At one of the meetings, Cooke showed up with five twin bed sheets duct-taped together to illustrate the size of the problem.

Such debates — pitting subdivision aesthetics against environmental consciousness — have played out for years on the East and West coasts, resulting in lawsuits and even state statutes limiting the authority of homeowner associations to restrict solar projects.

Seldom has it been an issue in Missouri.

In Town and Country, a city that prides itself on its pastoral setting, officials have approached the conflict delicately.

“It’s an exciting project,” said Alderman Lynn Wright. “But since its our first, we have to make sure everything is right.”

Going Green

At least one other affluent St. Louis County community is in a similar position.

Frontenac recently rejected a homeowner’s request to put an array on the roof of his house. City Administrator Bob Shelton said residents didn’t object to the solar panels, but the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission wanted to develop guidelines before approving a residential solar array.

The homeowner, Tom Minogue, hopes the city will approve his proposal. Minogue and his wife, Becky, had discussed getting solar panels for years. With state and federal tax incentives that cut the cost by 50 percent, it now makes sense.

“At the state and federal level, the government wants you to do this,” Minogue said.

Last year, President Barack Obama jumped on the solar bandwagon by announcing he would install panels on the White House.

“In five to 10 years, you are going to start seeing solar power everywhere,” said Dan Hahn, co-founder of solarpowerrocks.com, an Oregon-based solar advocacy group.

Dane Glueck, who is overseeing Gira’s solar project, has seen his business in St. Louis double in the last year.

But nothing has sparked as much debate as the Gira residence.

“We were a little surprised at all the reaction,” said Glueck, president of StraightUp Solar.

Gira argues the panels are no different from other aspects of modern neighborhoods that once were viewed as eyesores.

“It’s like cell phone towers a few years ago,” he said. “It’s like telephone lines were 50 years ago. Now everyone looks at them and doesn’t think twice.”

Small Footprint 

Gira didn’t set out to build the ultimate green McMansion. He wanted a dream home with clean air because of his kids’ allergies.

The more Gira looked into it, the more eco-friendly architecture made sense.

Sure, the upfront costs were high — $300,000 for geothermal heating and cooling, $50,000 for underground tanks to retain rainwater, $100,000 for the solar array.

But most of the improvements would pay for themselves in a couple of decades. Gira planned on living in the house for the rest of his life.

As the project continued, it became an exercise in environmental design. Gira used recycled glass for the countertops and reused redwood from old wine barrels for his wine cellar.

The end result is an 8,000-square-foot luxury home with the carbon footprint of a 2,500-square-foot home, said Jeffrey Bogard, president of R.E.A Homes LLC. The Giras plan to move in this month.

The array could provide as much of 50 percent of their electricity. It won’t feed the home directly but instead supply power to Ameren’s electrical grid. Ameren Missouri then will deduct the amount of electricity generated from the Giras’ bill.

“I’m not one of these green people,” Gira said. “I’m always looking at the cost-versus-benefit ratio.”

For example, when he bought the lot in 2009 for $829,000, he allowed Habitat for Humanity to salvage whatever could be removed before he razed a 1970s-style, two-story house. In exchange, he got a tax write-off that helped cover the cost of demolition.

He just didn’t calculate a battle with his neighbors.

Neighbors Balk

The first question people ask is why Gira didn’t put the panels on his roof?

He points to the large oak trees in his front yard, shading his home.

At first no one seemed to object to the backyard plan. The trustees in his Claymark subdivision approved it. So did his next door neighbor, Gene Henry.

“I admire people trying to do something like that,” said Henry, who has a couple of solar panels on his garage roof.

But then residents in the adjacent Essex Point subdivision, including Cooke, heard about the project.

To Cooke, the project defied all the reasons she moved to Town and Country 23 years ago — the one-acre lots and views of fields and trees. She says she’s for alternative energy but can’t stand the idea of seeing gray metallic solar panels from her backyard, directly behind Gira’s.

“This structure is too large, too permanent and too industrial-looking …,” she wrote in a letter to the Board of Aldermen.

The city received letters from other Essex Point residents, who couldn’t see the array from their yards but feared it might depreciate Cooke’s home value and, by extension, their own.

They also worried about the project setting a precedent. What was next? Windmills?

“This is how it starts,” said Cooke, “with one little thing.”

The Board of Aldermen is scheduled to take up the matter again Monday night.

The debate has prompted Alderman Phil Behnen to draft an ordinance regulating the height of solar panels and how to screen them.

“I think Town and Country should take a leadership role in promoting alternative forms of energy,” he said. “A lot of communities give incentives for things like this.”

The Giras’ solar array, he noted, is about one-fourth the size of a tennis court.

“We grant tennis court requests on a regular basis,” he said.

$7,200 Tree Sheild

The Giras have staged a couple of pole-mounted sheets of plywood showing how the array might appear. Cooke acknowledges they are more difficult to see now. But that’s only because she complained, she said.

“I wish we would have had all this discussion before they spent the money,” she said.

Bogard said the trees cost roughly $7,200.

When Cooke walks to the edge of her backyard, she can still see parts of it through the pine trees.

“This is the view that disturbs me,” she said, standing near her Japanese honeysuckle bushes. “To me this is worth fighting over. It’s in a city that claims its ordinances are hugely about aesthetics. … It’s not just a bunch of crazy rich people being nuts.”

A couple of weeks ago, Cooke put a letter in the mailboxes of Gira’s neighbors in Claymark. She wanted them to know about Monday’s meeting and urged them to speak up if they opposed the array.

Gira said he’s willing to do whatever it takes to satisfy objections — though he admits having been close to giving up at times.

“We are sort of being punished for being pioneers,” he said.

Stephen Deere is a reporter with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. This article was originally published by the St Louis Post-Dispatch and was reprinted with permission.

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