It’s pop-ups vs. solar panels on Shepherd Street NW in Columbia Heights

Residents of the 1400 block of Shepherd Street NW in Columbia Heights, Ron Rogers, Karen Griffin and Tony Alvarez, are upset about the popup renovations in their neighborhood that might block the sun feeding their solar panel-covered roofs. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
July 20, 2014

The Columbia Heights residents believed they were doing the right thing by installing solar panels on their two-story homes on Shepherd Street in Northwest Washington. They’d use cleaner energy, slash electric bills and set an example for neighbors on their street, a place where many people already pay for wind energy and where the block club boasts a “Green and Just” subcommittee.

But Shepherd Street’s residents now face an unexpected obstacle to their environmentalism: pop-up rowhouses potentially blocking their solar panels’ access to sunlight. Two Shepherd Street homeowners with solar panels are especially upset because one rowhouse is slated to grow to three stories right in between them.

Pop-ups have generated controversy in one D.C. neighborhood after another, prompting the District’s planning office to propose regulations that would curb the phenomenon in predominantly residential communities.

On Shepherd Street, the conflict over pop-ups is pitting environmentally conscious residents hoping to save money on their utility bills against small-time developers trying to profit from the city’s real estate boom by building toward the sun.

Standing on her roof, Karen Griffin, a retired District schools administrator, stared down at her solar panels, and those of her neighbor two houses away. Then, Griffin looked at the house in between — the one planned for a third story.

Residents of the 1400 block of Shepherd Street NW in Columbia Heights are upset about the pop-up renovations in their neighborhood that might block the sun feeding their solar panel-covered roofs. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

“Instead of benefiting from the sun rays, my electric bill is going to go up,” said Griffin, who acquired her solar panels last year and will pay $32 a month for them for years to come. The developer, she said, “has a responsibility not to destroy what I’m already doing.”

Eder Barbosa, the founder and president of ERB Properties, said he is under contract to buy the house next door to Griffin and has tentative plans to add an extra story.

“I have the right to do it, and that’s what we’re going to do,” Barbosa said. “I don’t know if [the third floor] is going to affect them. I don’t think it will.” He stressed that he’s not trying to transform the Shepherd Street home into two or three condos — the result of many pop-ups. Instead, he hopes to sell it as a single family home and reap a potential profit of $50,000.

The District’s zoning laws have for years allowed developers in residential neighborhoods to enlarge two-story rowhouses so that they can reach as high as 40 feet with a third story. Homes in the city’s more commercial areas can be popped up as high as 90 feet.

But in the last few years, as the city’s popularity and economy have exploded, more developers are capitalizing on those regulations. They buy old rowhouses in hot neighborhoods, renovate them, add extra floors and carve out condos to make money.

Matt Orlins, a spokesman for the city’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, which issues permits for both solar panels and pop-ups, said he’s aware of the complaints on Shepherd Street. But there’s no provision that protects homeowners with solar panels from pop-ups, as long as the pop-ups are being built without violating city construction and zoning regulations.

Not satisfied with that answer, homeowners are lobbying city officials to enact legislation that will prevent developers from building pop-ups if the extra floors obstruct existing homes with solar panels. Earlier this month, the neighbors met at Griffin’s home with Democratic mayoral candidate and council member Muriel Bowser, who expressed sympathy for their situation.

Residents of the 1400 block of Shepherd Street NW in Columbia Heights are upset about the pop-up renovations in their neighborhood that might block the sun feeding their solar panel-covered roofs. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

“Our slide show presentation was sufficient to convince her of our issue,” Griffin said. “We didn’t have to take her up on my roof.”

Michael Halpern, another Shepherd Street resident, said he might bail out on a contract he signed more than a year ago with a solar-panel company because a developer two doors down is planning a pop-up.

Halpern, a program manager at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said he was going to make a down payment of about $4,500 to Solar City, lock in a cheap electricity rate for 20 years and see his monthly Pepco bills sink to about $27, down from $71.

When he signed up for solar panels last year, Halpern said, “The house wasn’t on the market.”

But then, the house was purchased in the fall of 2013 by an entity called 1422 Shepherd LLC, which is co-owned by “managing member” Insun Hofgard, who lives in Great Falls, Va.

In May, Halpern said he and other Shepherd Street neighbors met with one of Hofgard’s contractors to discuss the pop-up’s impact on the neighborhood. Halpern mentioned his worry about the pop-up’s obstruction of his solar panels. But the neighbors mostly vented that harmful construction trash was being left on the site.

Halpern, who would be the sixth resident on Shepherd Street with solar panels, said he knew he had limited recourse when it came to his future solar panels because Hofgard has every legal right to build up.

“What could I ask for them to do, other than give me more money or not putting on a extra story to the house?” Halpern asked. “At that point, we weren’t framing this issue as about two competing permits — for pop-ups and solar panels — until we started thinking more about it happening on other properties.”

Hofgard said she was unaware of the neighbors’ solar-panel issues and criticized the street’s residents for nitpicking at her pop-up. “They call constantly to get inspectors out there, and it’s delayed our project four to five months,” she said. “We’re taking actions to deal with whatever they’re unhappy with, but solar panels have not been on the list of items they’ve discussed.”

Hofgard said she plans to sell the building as a three-unit condo building and hopes to put everything on the market in six to eight weeks. “I don’t go out there,” she said, “with the intention of hurting anyone.”

Ian Shapira is a features writer on the local enterprise team and enjoys writing about people who have served in the military and intelligence communities. He joined the Post in 2000 and has covered education, criminal justice, technology, and art crime.
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