Solar panel lawsuit in St. Joseph a cautionary tale to homeowners

SAINT JOSEPH, Mo. - If you've been thinking that solar power might be a good way to save your family some money, you might take a lesson from the experience of a St. Joseph, Mo., couple.

The latest addition to the yard of Mary and Milton Boyles doesn't seem to stand out much right now, maybe because it's covered in snow. When the Boyles had an array of solar panels installed, they thought they were doing the right thing.

"What we thought was so neat about it was that it will provide us with our electrical bill paid, besides the credits we don't use at the end of the year go back into the grid, it helps everybody," Mary Boyles said.

But in August, just as the panels were about to be hooked up, the city of St. Joseph brought things to a halt.

"We don't hate solar power. We don't hate solar panels. We don't prohibit them. But what we do is we do not allow them to be constructed in the front yard," said Dustin Smith, a St. Joseph city planner.

Part of the problem is the Boyles have an unusual corner lot, with the house close to the property line on one side. The city considers the panels' location to be the front yard. They allowed a variance if the Boyles would move the panels farther back from the street. 

Milton Boyles said moving the panels is not a viable choice.

"That's the only place we've got where we get 85 percent of the sun," he explained.

If the panels were on the roof, there would be no problem, although Smith said an electrical permit would be necessary.

But the Boyles can't put the panels on their roof because it faces the wrong direction.

So now the Boyles are suing, contending that Missouri state rules override the city codes.

"I think we're just maybe a little ahead of the times the way people are thinking," Milton Boyles speculated.

Smith said they've seen more interest in solar power around town, and that the lesson here is to check first. Your neighborhood agreements might even prohibit certain installations.

Milton Boyle agrees.

"I already spent $16,000," he said.

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