July 22, 2008

In Trees Vs. Solar Battle, Old Trees Score a New Law

By Paul Rogers, San Jose Mercury News, Calif.

Jul. 22--In Silicon Valley's famous "trees vs. solar panels" battle, the trees have won.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Tuesday signed into law a bill that guarantees if California property owners plant a tree before a neighbor installs solar panels on their roof, then the neighbor can't require the tree to be cut or trimmed back, even if it grows to cast shade on the panels.

The bill, SB 1399, written by state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, came in response to Sunnyvale case that made national news and threatened to touch off statewide backyard battles as residential solar power installations are growing in popularity.

In the case, Richard Treanor and Carolynn Bissett of Sunnyvale were criminally prosecuted under an obscure 1970s law because redwood trees in their backyard cast a shadow over their neighbor's solar panels.

The showdown began in 2001, when their neighbor, Mark Vargas, installed a 10-kilowatt solar system on his roof and on a 10-foot-high trellis in his backyard.

Vargas said he first asked Treanor and Bissett to chop down the eight redwoods that the couple had planted from 1997 to 1999 along the fence separating their yards. The trees range in height from about 20 to 40 feet tall. Later, he asked them to trim the trees to about 15 feet high, even offering to pay the costs.

Treanor and Bissett said no. They said they liked the trees for privacy and noted the trees were there first. They suggested Vargas move his solar panels, which

make up an array that is about three times the size of a typical residential system. He said doing so would reduce the amount of electricity they could generate for his five-bedroom home and electric car.

After several years of failed mediation, Vargas filed a complaint with the Santa Clara County district attorney arguing that the trees violated California's "Solar Shade Control Act," a rarely used law signed in 1978 by former Gov. Jerry Brown.

San Jose prosecutors agreed and ordered the trees cut under penalty of $1,000 a day fines.

In December, Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Kurt Kumli found the couple guilty of violating the Solar Shade Control Act. In a partial victory for each side, he ruled that six of the trees could remain and the two generating the most shade must be "altered or removed in such a way so that 10 percent or less" of the solar panels are shaded.

After the Mercury News wrote about the case, it attracted the subsequent attention of CNN, Fox News, National Public Radio and other outlets as an "only in California, green vs. green" tale.

Treanor and Bissett finally gave up appeals and chopped back two of their redwood trees in March after having spent $37,000 in legal


Simitian said his new law tries to strike a balance between two noble goals -- expanding renewable energy and preserving trees.

"I'm hopeful that a little courtesy, common sense and a clarification of the law will help folks sort these things out," said Simitian.

In addition to nullifying a section of the "Solar Shade Act" that required homeowners to trim back trees shading solar panels even if the trees were there first, the new law also eliminates criminal prosecution as a penalty for violation.

Under existing law, however, if a person plants a tree after solar panels are installed and it grows up to shade the panels, they can be required to trim the tree back.

Simitian is chairman of the state Senate's Environmental Quality Committee. He wrote the law that requires California to obtain 20 percent of its power from renewable energy by 2010.

Treanor maintained all along that he and Bissett were supporters of solar power but thought state law went too far in punishing homeowners with trees in their yards.

"I understand that people who invest tens of thousands of dollars in home solar systems need to be protected," Treanor said. "However, when solar systems are installed causing obvious conflict with existing trees, it defies logic to then subject people to criminal prosecution who legally and innocently planted those trees. This legislation will help the solar power industry in the long run by respecting everyone's interests."

Contact Paul Rogers at [email protected] or (408) 920-5045.


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