Federal regulators failed this week to persuade an appeals court to free them from a rule-making process that Sonoma County hopes will aid its groundbreaking program to finance energy-saving home improvements.

In an order filed Thursday, a three-judge panel for the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said it would delay a decision on an appeal by the Federal Housing Finance Agency until a district court takes further action in an ongoing legal dispute.

Sonoma County and the California state Attorney General's Office sued the federal agency after it announced in 2010 that the federally controlled mortgage enterprises Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac would stop buying loans on homes that are participating in the county's Energy Independence Program.

The program provides financing for solar and other clean-energy measures for homes and businesses. Homeowners pay back the debt through their property tax bills.

Federal regulators and banking groups maintain those tax liens threaten mortgage lenders and disrupt mortgage markets because in foreclosures they must be paid off before regular loans. County officials said the risks to lenders are miniscule and the societal benefits are huge in promoting clean energy.

Deputy Sonoma County Counsel Kathleen Larocque called this week's ruling a win for the county. She said the two sides will meet May 3 in a federal district court in Oakland.

In the meantime, the housing agency is under court order to follow a standard federal rule-making process. But the proposed rule that the agency devised simply would continue to prohibit federally backed loans for homes in the county energy program.

The nation's banking industry has strongly opposed the county's call to change that position.

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com.

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