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Green lawsuit over shade trees and solar panels

by on08 April 2008


Which is more important: shade or solar power?

In an environmental feud that probably would only occur in California, two neighbors in Sunnyvale, a San Francisco suburb, have been feuding over eight prized redwood trees and the shade they provide, while their next door neighbor says the trees impede use of his highly efficient rooftop solar panels. 

Thirty years after California passed the Solar Shade Act, a law enacted to protect homeowners' investment in rooftop solar panels, this is the first claim to make it to litigation. Under this law trees that impede solar access to installed solar panels can be considered a ‘nuisance,’ and the trees’ owners can be fined up to $1,000 a day.

Both parties to the lawsuit claim to be environmentalists. The tree owners drive a Prius hybrid car and say they support solar power, but love their trees and the shade and privacy they provide, and want common sense to prevail. Their neighbor drives an electric car and installed a 10-KW rooftop solar system in 2001 which is so large and efficient that he claims he only pays $60/year for electricity for his entire home.

The eight redwoods were planted between 1997 and 1999 along the fence that separates the two properties and are now each between 20 and 40 feet tall. The solar panel owner claims he asked his neighbors to chop down their redwoods, which were planted from 1997 to 1999 along the property line, before he installed his solar panels. Many squabbles later, he asked the neighbors to cut the redwood trees back, and they did cut the top of one of the trees back about 15 feet.

The Solar Shade Act was written to guarantee that an owner’s investment in solar panels would not be diminished by shade from neighboring trees or shrubs. The law affects trees planted after 1979 and bans trees or shrubs that shade more than 10 percent of a neighbor’s solar panels between 10 A.M. and 2 P.M. daily. The law applies to existing trees and shrubs that later grow large enough to shade solar panels. Violations of the Solar Shade Act are like a parking ticket, accumulating for each occasion with daily fines of up to $1,000.

In a partial victory for each side, the tree owners were found guilty of a single count of violating the Solar Shade Control Act by the court and ordered to remove the two redwoods that create the most shade over the solar panels, with the remaining six trees allowed to remain undisturbed as they are. The judge waived all shade fines.

In response to the verdict a California Senator has now introduced a new bill to ensure that trees planted before solar panels are installed have a right to grow in peace and remain undisturbed.

Read more here.

Last modified on 08 April 2008
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