Bethlehem Press

Wednesday, August 23, 2017
PRESS PHOTO BY BERNIE O’HAREAssistant Fire Chief Craig Baer testifies about roof top solar panels. PRESS PHOTO BY BERNIE O’HAREAssistant Fire Chief Craig Baer testifies about roof top solar panels.

Homeowner’s solar panel plan rejected

Monday, January 30, 2017 by Bernie O’Hare Special to the Bethlehem Press in Local News

Pawel Zelinski, a proponent of “free energy” and “being green,” is willing to pay $23,000 for solar panels on his Ninth Avenue home. But at the Jan. 24 meeting, Bethlehem’s Zoning Hearing Board decided that being safe trumps being green. They unanimously rejected plans that would permit Zelinski to install solar panels as close as two feet away from the edge of the roof.

Bethlehem’s zoning ordinance requires a three-foot setback for solar panels. Zelinski sought what is called a dimensional variance, is a mechanism under which zoning hearing boards can allow some deviation from the strict letter of the law.

The reason for this denial was because Assistant Fire Chief Craig Baer made an unusual appearance and testified that this three-foot 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 there are solar shingles that often go unnoticed.

He said they also run the risk of tripping on a solar roof 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-square-foot Dietz and Watson warehouse in Burlington County, N.J., 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 the homeowner can go green while firefighters are assured they will be safe if they are ever needed.