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Solar energy is OK in Orchard Park – in the backyard

Orchard Park officials like what solar panels do.

They're just not thrilled with how they look and what they might do to property values.

That is causing a predicament in town and has some residents reminding them that some things are more important than appearance.

The Orchard Park Planning Board last year recommended the Town Board prohibit solar panels on the front roof of homes, and the Town Board complied.

Now, Town Board members want to clean up the language to allow only panels designed to look like "normal" roofing materials or siding on the front of buildings. Before they do, they have asked the Planning Board to find out if solar panels on the front roofs would hurt property values, and to recommend specifications that would make roof-mounted solar panels aesthetically appropriate.

At a recent public hearing, eight people asked Town Board members to allow the panels on front roofs. No one favored the prohibition.

"On our house, the only way that we can get solar panels is if we put them on the front. That's the angle of the sun," Jonathan Prantner told Town Board members during a hearing on the law.

"My family bought our house in Orchard Park largely because of its open southern-facing front roof, perfect for solar panels," said Heather A. Hartel of Powers Road. But under the new law, she added, "we would have been prevented from easily and affordably taking full advantage of our right to generate solar energy on our private property." She said the law does not protect homeowners' rights to choose among affordable options.

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Planning Board Chairman Harold Fabinsky said he understands the residents' objections, but said it is not the only consideration.

"I think neighborhood character is an important factor here, and it's one the Town Board wants to make sure is preserved," he said.

Orchard Park's approach is different from another Erie County town. Amherst instituted a "Solarize Amherst" program last year to encourage residents to use solar energy. Amherst's code allows solar panels on front or back roofs, and there are a number of homes with the alternate energy source, and at least one green subdivision in Amherst, with geothermal heating and cooling. "Solarize" programs also have been instituted in the Town of Tonawanda, Lockport and Grand Island.

Since solar panels produce the most electricity when they are facing south, the law could have the effect of allowing the panels on the back roofs on houses on one side of the street, while prohibiting them on their neighbors' front roofs on the other side of the street.

Fabinsky said preserving quality of life for everyone in a neighborhood is important. He said the Planning Board's first concern with solar panels was possible glare.

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"The issue was, at that point in time, the original solar panels were highly reflective, there were a number of concerns about putting them in certain ways they could essentially blind drivers," he said.

The best place for solar panels to get the most sun exposure is on a roof that faces south, and if that's not possible, then east and west facing roofs are used, according to Darrin Harzewski, director of sales for CIR Electric, which installs the panels.

"It all comes down to the sun's path," Harzewski said. "If somebody's home is facing south, that's unfortunately where we would have to put it."

The panels are tempered glass with a non-eflective coating to absorb the sunlight, he said.

"Certain panels are designed all black, so it is aesthetically more pleasing," Harzewski said.

Orchard Park officials say this is not about objecting to harnessing solar energy; they point out there are solar panels on the town highway garage and library.

Fabinsky said he is researching the use of solar tiles, which look and act like roof shingles, and would be allowed under the proposal.

Tesla Inc., which recently started operating a factory in South Buffalo, is currently developing a solar roof product designed to look like traditional shingles, but has not yet started installing the roofs on customer homes. They are expected to be more expensive than installing solar panels.

The Orchard Park Town Board is also exploring whether solar panels on the front roof of a house affect property values and if there are recommended specifications that would render them aesthetically appropriate.

In Amherst, Assessor David Marrano said his department does not add value to the assessment of a house when solar panels are added. There have not yet been enough sales of comparable homes with and without panels, he said.

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"We just don't know at this point what it does to market value," he said.

Orchard Park resident David Schuster, who has had solar panels on his house for nearly three years, said the panels appeal to environmentally conscious people looking to buy a house.

"Some people have a concern for the environment. By installing solar panels instead of buying a BMW, they feel they are making the world a better place," he said.

Heather Hartel said she hopes town officials are able to see beyond a building's looks to more important issues.

"Whether we like it of not, our futures are going to depend on renewable energy," Hartel said.

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