Battle Pits Solar Energy Against Trees

A homeowner in San Francisco asked his neighbor to chop down his redwood trees because their shadow is interfering with his solar panels. The neighbor refused. The feud has ended up in court, and the results could have ramifications statewide.

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. An unusual battle is brewing here in California, pitting solar energy against trees. It began when one home owner with solar panels revived an obscure environmental state law that's bad news for his neighbor's redwood trees.

David Gorn reports from Silicon Valley on the struggle over the right to sunlight.

DAVID GORN: Richard Treanor recycles, and his neighbor Mark Vargus, he recycles, too. Treanor has energy saving appliances and neighbor Vargus has energy saving appliances, too. They both have electric cars. In terms of loving the environment it seems neither one can top the other. But Treanor discovered he was on the losing end of environmentalism when he found himself being tried in state court for planting eight redwood trees.

RICHARD TREANOR: We're not criminals. My wife and I do not consider ourselves criminals. And yet we found ourselves in Superior Court, right next to the guys with the orange jumpsuits and shackles.

GORN: The problem is Treanor's trees are casting a large shadow on his next door neighbor and that neighbor's array of solar panels. In what seems to be the first ruling of its kind in the nation, a Superior Court judge ordered Treanor to cut down two of his eight trees. That's because of a unique and little used law, the California Solar Shade Control Act. It was passed back in 1979, after the oil crisis and lines at the gas station convinced lawmakers of the importance of alternative energy. Solar power, the law basically says, is more important than any trees that shade them. To Treanor that message makes no sense.

TREANOR: We want to put solar on all - everybody's roofs and everything and whack the trees down? I don't think so.

GORN: But to neighbor Mark Vargus it's not so simple. When those redwood saplings were planted behind his fence line ten years ago they were about five feet tall. Now, they're topping 35 feet. And they could eventually loom 100 feet or more over his small and now very dark backyard. And that's the problem.

MARK VARGUS: Here you see 40 modules on the west side, which produce the greatest amount of power somewhere in the neighborhood of probably 2:00 to 4:00, somewhere in that range.

GORN: Vargus is walking around his home, pointing out the solar panels covering much of his roof. Most them are so high up they're currently unaffected by the redwoods, but a set of solar panels in the backyard can't get any sun to generate power. Even though he installed his solar panels after the trees were planted, Vargus still feels he's entitled to the sunlight that's supposed to fall in his backyard. And the law says his solar panels demand it.

VARGUS: The law protects solar power. Thirty years ago, I don't think it was as important as it is now. Without the rights of solar access, maybe more people would not even consider putting solar in if they weren't protected.

GORN: The whole dispute, says Ken Rosenblatt of the Santa Clara county district attorney's office, has put him and every D.A. in the state in a bad spot. That's because the law requires him to treat shade producing trees as a public nuisance hazard, just like piles of trash or toxic waste.

KEN ROSENBLATT: I would much rather be pursuing polluters than trying to cut down trees, but our duty is to enforce the law and the legislature has made it clear that my duty is also to protect the solar collectors from the trees that are casting shade on it.

GORN: Now, Treanor says this battle isn't really over solar power, that his neighbor is just using this old law to get rid of trees he doesn't like. And Vargus says this is the ultimate case of not in my backyard, because his neighbors say they're pro-solar but are fighting the law anyway.

So yes, this is about solar panels versus trees, but it also has a more familiar ring to it. At its root, this back and forth neighbor dispute is really like thousands of property line feuds throughout California and the nation. And that's the real danger, says Frank Schiavo, longtime environmental studies teacher at San Jose State University.

FRANK SCHIAVO: In practical terms, I think it's going to open a floodgate, so to speak, of conflicts between neighbors.

GORN: Schiavo says that Vargus may be the first to use the Solar Shade Act, but now that's it's succeeded, he won't be the last. Treanor is appealing the judge's ruling, but also says he's set to cut down two of his eight trees to end the whole thing. Vargus says the ruling simply upholds the law and he may go after two more of the trees next year.

For NPR News, I'm David Gorn.

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