As solar panels proliferate, so do legal questions

CALIFORNIA – Is creating renewable energy more important than saving a tree or an open field?

That question and others concerning the environmental-trumping power of solar energy has only recently begun to surface in legal disputes. Though the courts have not yet made a definitive decision on the subject, two decades-old California laws currently tip the odds.

The Solar Rights Act and Solar Shade Act both enacted more than 30 years ago were meant to promote the installation of renewable energy systems by removing red tape and obstructions to sun. The Rights Act prohibits cities, counties and other entities from barring or mitigating solar panel installation, and the Shade Act restricts the growing or planting of trees that interfere with access to sunlight.

The legislation passed in 1978 has been essentially dormant until recently as more and more incentives to install solar panels come online. Only now are the courts beginning to test the limits of the law, primarily concerning large solar plants. The acts, for example, do not account for impact on natural habitat by photovoltaic panel farms or the CO2-reducing capabilities of trees and other plants.

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“In the Mojave and other parts of desert area in California, there are hundreds and thousands of acres under consideration for solar power development, and a lot of environmental groups are worried about protecting the nature of areas,” said Santa Rosa-based Alvarez-Glasman and Colvin attorney Matthew Gorman.

“It will be interesting to see how the Solar Rights Act applies to those and other large-scale projects. It is clear in the original language of the bill that the intention was for small scale installations, but the matter just hasn’t been disputed in court.”

One of the most noted cases related to the shade law involved a Santa Clara couple who was asked to remove eight redwood trees when a neighbor accused them of obstructing his solar panels. The matter was resolved last year by trimming several of the trees instead of complete removal, but the incident led to the creation of a bill meant to clarify the bounds of the shade law.

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Senate Bill 1399 authored by State Senator Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, was signed last July and makes an exception for trees planted before the installation of solar panels.

“I understand that people who invest tens of thousands of dollars in home solar systems need to be protected,” Mr.  Simitian 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.”

The applicability of the Solar Rights Act to renewable-energy power plants has also been the center of efforts to clarify the historic law. Last June, the federal Bureau of Land Management placed a moratorium on development of solar farms on public land until it studies the environmental impact.

Last year, a group in Clear Lake called Residents for Responsible Solar Power sued to stop the construction of a nine-acre solar farm about 200 feet away from their homes. The Lake County Board of Supervisors granted a permit to the Northern California Power Agency last April, but the case was eventually settled out of court. Homeowners were compensated for the impact of the facility.

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