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Green vs. greener

When the shade from redwoods casts a shadow over solar panels, what's an environmentalist to do?

February 14, 2008

It's a dispute that could only happen in California. That it's on the border of a Silicon Valley town called Sunnyvale is the icing on the cake. Or, perhaps, the M&Ms in the trail mix.

For years now, Mark Vargas of Santa Clara and Carolynn Bissett and Richard Treanor of Sunnyvale have been fighting because two of the couple's eight 20- to 40-foot-tall redwoods (which they planted for privacy during the late 1990s) are shading the solar panels on Vargas' roof and trellis (which he installed in 2001 and which, remarkably, keep his yearly power bill around $60). Apparently, owning trees that shade more than 10% of a neighbor's solar panels from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. violates the California Solar Shade Act -- an obscure 1978 law intended to encourage investment in solar power.

It's hard to see why the neighbors couldn't have worked this out on their own. Both parties could have anticipated that the trees, which were smaller when Vargas installed his solar array, were likely to grow and could have dealt with this proactively. (Vargas claims he tried but that years of mediation failed.) The trees reportedly shade only 15.8% of one of Vargas' 128 panels. A wise judge split the difference on this case, finding the couple guilty of just one count of violating the act, waiving the $1,000-a-day fines and requiring removal of only two trees.

Bissett, who owns a Prius, told the San Jose Mercury News that she was "sad that these two wonderful things are being pitted against each other." Her sorrow isn't keeping her and her husband out of court; they're appealing the judge's decision, they said, because it will set a bad precedent for the rest of the state. The couple's legal bills already exceed $25,000. It's as if California's traditions of environmentalism, respect for property rights and litigiousness have collided in these two families' adjacent backyards.

As a web-footed bard once mourned, it is not easy being green. But the saga in Sunnyvale isn't all bad news. If what passes for environmental crisis here in California is an overabundance of tidy subdivisions bursting with hybrid-driving, redwood-hugging, solar-panel-installing homeowners, we should all pop the cork on a bottle of organic bubbly and join in a toast.

Al Gore might even consider cultivating a new project to follow up his Nobel Prize-winning efforts on climate change. We're imagining some kind of learning-to-share or cooperation thing. (Kermit? You still there?) Curbing global warming, after all, is a mere technological and economic challenge. But it seems that neighbors, even hemp-wearing ones, will always having trouble mending fences.

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