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Blowing a fuse over solar panels

Council may halt a nursing home's plans for an array the size of a football field, which neighbors say will be an eyesore and distract drivers on the nearby Arroyo Seco Parkway.

September 21, 2010|By Bob Pool, Los Angeles Times

A solar power quandary is charging up residents of Montecito Heights and Mt. Washington as a nursing home installs 1,441 photovoltaic panels on an Arroyo Seco hillside.

Some homeowners complain that the football field-size solar array will be an eyesore and a distraction for motorists on the nearby Arroyo Seco Parkway.

Operators of the 63-year-old Broadview Christian Science Nursing Facility counter that their $1.6-million project should be applauded and duplicated elsewhere.

The Los Angeles City Council will plug into the dispute Tuesday when the area's council representative asks for a stop-work order on the grounds that the installation may be a safety hazard.

The project's critics acknowledge that Broadview's efforts to tap into solar power have merit. But they contend that the project's highly visible location opposite the landmark Southwest Museum undermines years of community work to preserve the open look of Montecito Heights' hillsides.

Installation of 80 steel posts for the array began several weeks ago on the hill above 4570 Griffin Ave. The first solar panel was bolted in place Friday.

City Councilman Ed Reyes said he will ask his colleagues to halt the installation because the project is being built in a fire hazard zone. State law blocks cities from restricting solar panel installation for aesthetic reasons.

"I'm focused on public safety at this juncture," Reyes said Monday. "We've had cases of erosion because of these when it rains. And it's situated in such a way that the freeway runs at the base of it. How does glare affect safety in the corridor?"

Los Angeles wants to break away from fossil and coal fuels, but the safety issue will give the city an opportunity to investigate how new technology can be used without penalizing communities, Reyes said.

In the meantime, he said, his office is talking to state lawmakers about restoring the power to oversee solar installations to local government,

Arroyo Seco-area residents said they share Reyes' ambivalence on the issue.

"I'm in favor of solar power. I myself am of two minds on this because of the energy that will be produced. But to me this installation blows a hole in the northeast area's hillside protection ordinance," said Jack Fenn, vice president of the Montecito Heights Improvement Assn. and one of those who helped draft the hillside development restrictions.

Fenn, a retired locksmith who has lived in the area for 31 years, said the Broadview project could set a precedent in a city where vast areas of hillside open space might be targeted for large solar arrays if local officials do not regain some developmental control over them.

Although he suspects officials are reacting too late to stop Broadview's project, Fenn said city documents suggest that the slope beneath the array is subject to landslides and potential liquefaction.

Michael Fisher, Broadview's executive director, said he hopes to convince council members that his healthcare center is "trying to do something good" with its solar panels, which are being installed under a 20-year-lease arrangement with a private company.

He said his nonprofit, 39-bed facility expects a 12-year payback schedule for the installation. The panels will supply 93% of Broadview's electrical needs.

He said Broadview is unable to install the panels on its roofs because of shading from nearby trees. He said the panels, made of glass and metal, are not a fire hazard and the slope beneath them will be reseeded to prevent erosion once installation is complete.

"We need more projects like this," Fisher said. "There is a lot of conversation now about this. Hopefully, that will spur more people to look at solar power and invest in it."

bob.pool@latimes.com

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