OMAHA — Timothy Adams isn't backing down.
The Omaha resident has turned a dispute with his neighborhood association into a public battle, putting up billboards, launching a website and taking to social media to publicize a lawsuit filed against him over the installation of solar panels on the roof of his home near Lake Zorinsky.
"It's not about money," Adams, 49, said. "It's about sticking up for principles. If it's about spending tens of thousands of dollars educating people, I will do it."
Adams, an orthodontist who lives in the upscale home with his wife and their eight children, said he didn't know he needed permission from the South Shore Heights Homeowners Association before putting up the $39,000 panels last fall. He made the decision, in part, because he wanted to switch to renewable energy and save money on his electricity bills. Adams said the panels are generating more than enough electricity to power his home and he's saving enough on energy bills to have his investment returned in 10 to 12 years.
That's if he's allowed to keep them.
The homeowners association that governs 226 homes asked Adams to take them down. He's refused, so the association got permission from its membership to take him to court. A lawsuit was filed in late March in Douglas County District Court.
Adams violated the association's rules — or covenants — that requires its permission before exterior home improvements or additions.
Al Williams, president of the homeowners association, declined to comment on the specifics of the lawsuit but said residents are given copies of the neighborhood rules each year in their handbook, so they should know what they can and can't do. The rules were last renewed in 2006 and govern house size, improvements such as swimming pools, dog houses and flag poles, and storage of boats, campers and lawn mowers, among other things, in an attempt to protect home values.
Adams has pleaded ignorance of the rules. He's sought to drum up support to keep the solar panels and draw attention to the lawsuit through a barrage of letters to his neighbors, billboards posted at high-traffic intersections in Omaha and an online campaign that includes a website, Facebook page and Twitter account.
"This is a problem throughout the nation, where people want to put up solar panels but someone says they're ugly," Adams said.
Williams said there are homeowners in the association on both sides of the issue, and it's causing some friction.
"I don't wish this on any neighborhood," he said.
The Nebraska Energy Office does not keep track of the number of homes that generate solar power. Spokesman Jerry Loos said there is no permit process and homeowners aren't required to notify the state.
Loos said he wasn't aware of any specific disputes between Nebraska homeowners and their neighborhood associations over solar energy devices but noted such disputes aren't uncommon elsewhere.
Almost half of states have laws protecting homeowners' rights to install and operate solar energy devices, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Nebraska is not among them, but it does have a law allowing for easements and zoning variances to accommodate solar projects.
A handful of U.S. cities, including Madison, Wis., have passed local ordinances protecting homeowners' rights to solar access. Omaha's planning department is updating the city's master plan, and among the suggested changes is revising city codes to protect solar access. Adams' media blitz asks supporters to contact Omaha officials and push for such an ordinance.
Some of Adams' neighbors don't think solar panels are the real issue in his dispute with the homeowners association. They said it's really about being a good neighbor.
Wayne Gill, whose house faces Adams' solar panels, said: "Unfortunately, this has turned into an issue about solar power, when it's really about your neighbors and taking them into account before doing something."
He said he doesn't mind the solar panels and "when I first saw them up, I said, 'That's cool.'" But, he added, Adams didn't get permission to put them up and he never apologized for doing so.
Another neighbor, Jonathan McIntosh, said he doesn't think the association would have approved the solar panels had Adams sought permission. He said the rules are in place to protect the integrity and value of the neighborhood, and Adams is compromising that.
"It damages the neighborhood," he said. "If you don't have those covenants in place, you get a free-for-all. I don't want that. We have a great neighborhood."
Adams agreed that the dispute isn't really about installing solar panels without permission. He said he feels his homeowners association has been lax in enforcing its rules in the past but it is compelled to fight him after receiving a written complaint from another homeowner.
"It's about using this as a platform to reassert their authority," Adams said. "They're taking on the wrong case. Go after someone who's not cutting their grass or (is) putting up faulty siding."