To most of the homeowners in Seelye Estates West in the town of Ballston, the most important property right is the right to maintain the value of their property, even if it means telling their neighbors what they can or cannot do with their property.
So when Brian and Christa Haines installed solar panels on 14-foot poles in their yard, 30 of their neighbors did the neighborly thing and sued them in State Supreme Court in Saratoga County, claiming the solar panels caused a 10 percent reduction in their property values. The judge dismissed the case, but the neighbors have appealed. Meanwhile, by a 3-2 vote, the town of Ballston passed laws in August restricting the height and placement of freestanding solar panels.
It is strange what people will accept as beautiful or reject as ugly in their neighbor’s yards. Somehow solar panels and windmills offend the aesthetic sensibilities of suburbia, but swimming pools, campers, ATVs, snowmobiles, flagpoles, telephone poles, propane and oil tanks, garages, decks, sheds, gas grills, jungle gyms, trampolines, putting greens and blacktop driveways don’t.
The eye of the beholder
Is there something inherently attractive about a swimming pool? Is an RV in the driveway more attractive than solar panels on a pole? Obviously, the old adage that beauty is in the eye of the beholder applies here, because I do not see where any of the above items are inherently attractive, or more attractive than solar panels.
The residents of Seelye Estates West might be discomfited to know that I crawled through their neighborhood using Google Earth, and if it were up to me, I would probably bulldoze the whole development. There is nothing beautiful about these vinyl-clad luxury homes, which appear to have been designed by first-year architectural students.
For the sake of argument, however, let’s allow the residents to maintain the delusion that they live in beautiful houses. That still leaves us with the problem of who decides what is attractive or ugly on someone else’s property. In the town of Ballston, it apparently is a handful of residents and the Town Board along with the Zoning and Planning boards.
With its new laws, the town of Ballston not only is infringing on property rights, but also has taken a step into the past. It has been 40 years since the United States experienced its first energy crisis, and we are not one whit closer to solving our energy problems now than we were then.
No infinite supply
Whether or not you believe that Earth will run out of oil and gas in 30, 50 or 100 years, the important point is that we are emptying an energy larder that can not be refilled. There is not an infinite supply of these fuels, and the easy-to-obtain oil and gas have already been pumped out of the ground, which is why fracking is now regularly in the news.
So when people go to the expense of putting up solar panels in their yard, we should praise and encourage them, not condemn them. And we should be removing, not creating, barriers to the use of alternate energy sources.
Even as we encourage the use of alternate energy sources, however, we must remind ourselves that it is not possible for solar, wind and other alternate energy sources to fully replace fossil fuels, which means that other measures must be taken to balance energy needs with available energy sources. If we cannot increase supply, we must decrease demand.
At some point in the future, our descendants living in Seelye Estates West and the many other developments that mushroomed all over the greater Capital Region during the era of cheap energy may find that their houses will have lost most of their value, not because neighbors put up solar panels but because they didn’t; and because if you live in these developments, you have to commute to everything. The decision that our descendants will have to make is this: “Do I continue to live in this development or do I head back to one of the villages or cities in the area, where I won’t have to drive so much or where I can live without a vehicle?”
Looking to the future
The future belongs to people like the Haineses who are cutting back on their use of fossil fuels by installing solar panels. The future belongs to people who are exploring alternate energy sources, cutting back on demand, living in smaller houses, driving smaller and more efficient cars and moving back to our villages and cities where they drive less, walk, bicycle or use public transportation.
The future belongs to those who are realists, who see what is coming and are preparing for it. It does not belong to the delusional who think things will always be as they are now.
It’s a shame that a small group of people in the town of Ballston have managed to violate other people’s property rights, make their aesthetic sensibilities town law and have chosen to stay in the past rather than be part of the future.
Daniel T. Weaver lives in Amsterdam and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.