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Simitian 'trees vs. solar' bill passes Senate

A bill authored by state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, to strike a balance between protecting trees and allowing solar access has passed the Senate on a 38-0 vote and now moves to the state Assembly for a July hearing.

Simitian wrote the legislation to allow homeowners protection for pre-existing trees when a neighbor installs a solar energy system and complains that the trees are blocking sunlight.

"Right now, a new neighbor can move in next to you, install a solar energy system and then — under threat of criminal prosecution — force you to take an ax to your trees if and when they grow," Simitian said.

SB 1399 is intended to clear up ambiguities in an existing, "well-intended but over-reaching" law regarding solar energy systems, Simitian added. The idea for the legislation came from an entry in his annual "There Oughta Be A Law" contest when constituents send him ideas.

The contest entry was from Sunnyvale residents Richard Treanor and Carolyn Bissett, who were forced to chop off the tops of their redwood trees after a neighbor had them prosecuted under a 1978 law for blocking sunlight to his solar panels. The couple also paid $35,000 in legal fees.

"We're grateful that the Legislature is addressing the inequities of the California Solar Shade Control Act," Treanor said. "I understand that people who invest tens of thousands of dollars in home solar systems need to be protected. 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."

"I continue to support renewable energy," Simitian, the chair of the Senate Environmental Quality Committee, said. "I'm just trying to avoid a million neighborhood arguments."

-- Don Kazak

Comments

Posted by let the sun shine, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Apr 23, 2008 at 9:51 am

This is a well-intended but not well thought out proposal. Certain trees such as redwoods can affect not just the next door neighbor but properties several lots away. It takes a lot of energy to warm up and light up homes put into darkness by evergreen trees thoughtlessly planted. I subscribe to the National Arbor Day Foundation's theme of Right Tree, Right Place. This new law flies in the face of this as it allows Wrong Trees in Wrong Places and neighbors would be helpless as a result. Please contact your representative to defeat enactment.


Posted by Ken, a resident of Menlo Park: South of Seminary/Vintage Oaks
on Apr 23, 2008 at 11:17 am

This is a tough one. I'm all for solar energy, but for someone to have to cut down an old tree because a neighbor decides to install panels somehow doesn't seem right. That tree might be allowing the homeowner to use far less energy to keep his/her house cool during the summer.

I know this wouldn't help with existing homes, but I wonder if cities have started to revise their ordinances to prohibit certain types of trees -- ones that would be a problem for solar energy -- for new homes. If not, it might be a good thing to do.


Posted by let the sun shine, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Apr 23, 2008 at 12:54 pm

Yes, this is tough, but there is a big difference between deciduous trees that could provide desired shade in the summer (when it's easier to get sunlight on panels because of the sun angle) and those that cause shade year-around. There is a real benefit to light, not just on panels, but also on windows and roofs during the winter. From what I can tell, this bill does not distinguish at all between types of trees.


Posted by truth, a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven
on Apr 23, 2008 at 2:25 pm

This is a great bill. I have old growth trees on my lot that were there before I arrived and were part of the cost and attraction of the property. If you think I am going to allow you to demand I cut them down in the name of winter light or solar you have better come ready to fight. Senator Simitian gets that my property rights outrank your needs for sunlight. No one plants 30 foot trees from the start aside from Larry Ellison. There is plenty of time to talk and reason with your neighbors. The large trees were there and you have no basis to mess with them.


Posted by let the sun shine, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Apr 23, 2008 at 5:02 pm

Sorry that we disagree, but we have lived for several decades in our neighborhood and enjoy the deciduous trees near us, but we bought our home specifically because there is a lot of light. Now we can see that some trees of neighbors several lots away are beginning to interfere with our sunlight. The value of my property will fall significantly if it is in darkness all the time, and my energy costs will skyrocket. So why do they "win" with trees that really don't belong in towns but do belong in forests?


Posted by let the sun shine, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Apr 23, 2008 at 5:10 pm

I should add that the neighbors never asked if it would be OK for them to ruin our access to sunlight.


Posted by truth, a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven
on Apr 24, 2008 at 2:43 pm

If my trees are there before you it is my right. I think neighbors should communicate better to avoid some instances when planting trees takes away sunlight. That is not going to be solved through any bill. That is a different debate and one that Menlo Park will be hard tested to solve. Having neighbors actually talk and find middle ground on trees, homes et al. My neighbor planted a tree right over my garden light and the garden is toast. She never asked if she could she just did. But to that same point, I should not feel I have a right to take her tree down. That is ridiculous.


Posted by stop global warming, a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Jun 21, 2008 at 12:16 pm

The two most important, but somewhat conflicting, considerations are that trees help prevent global warming, versus solar panels provide clean energy and lessen our dependence on foreign energy, oil drilling, etc.

These two considerations have to be balanced carefully because they affect our very survival.

I think other issues such as property values and gardens should be dealt with only after we've balanced, and protected, the trees and the solar panels. For new trees, maybe the city should choose the species (deciduous vs. evergreen) carefully, but it doesn't make sense to cut down a large, already existing, redwood to put in a new, small maple (for example).


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