Solar Panels Aren’t A Public Nuisance, Says A Recent Court Decision Regarding Neighbor’s Objection To Solar Panel Installation

While they have many environmental and economic benefits distributed energy installations like solar or wind frequently are opposed by the local community on aesthetic grounds; apparently some people don’t like to see energy being saved. Once such case from New England, however establishes that “looks” are not enough.  In a recent case from Vermont, a plaintiff sued his neighbor because of the alleged unsightly appearance of solar panels on the neighbor’s roof. The legal theory was that the unsightly appearance constituted a “public nuisance”, objectionable on an aesthetic  grounds to any reasonable person. However, the court decided that an unattractive sight, without more, provides no basis for judicial relief. Stated another way, before a court will intervene, the unsightly appearance must be shown to materially interfere with the neighbor’s use and enjoyment of his property. Aesthetic objections are generally not enough to constitute a public nuisance.

The court noted that other similar aesthetic objections in other cases to cell towers, a neighboring cemetery, and an unsightly party wall, have been held not to constitute a public nuisance. The court reserved judgment on whether a complaint, that reflected light from the solar panels made it difficult to sleep or watch television, would be actionable. These are complaints to be decided on another day, but, it’s worth noting that solar panels don’t reflect light – they absorb most light that hits them and reflect only a comparatively small amount of sunlight.

As noted, this case was decided in Vermont. However, Pennsylvania law is similar: “Aesthetic reasons are not sufficient in themselves to support a conclusion that the operation and maintenance of certain business will be contrary to the best interests of the community.” Medinger Appeal, 377 Pa. 217, 104 A.2d 118 (Pennsylvania Supreme Court 1954).  Accordingly, this Vermont case is instructive on how Pennsylvania courts might handle a similar complaint regarding solar panels. 

This energy alert is not intended to be legal advice. If you have any questions, please contact James A. Pellow at 412.566.1986 or jpellow@eckertseamans.com, or any other attorney with whom you have been working.

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James A. Pellow, III

Member - Pittsburgh