People can get a little kooky when they feel their neighbors are encroaching on their property. Thankfully, most people just shoot icy glares over the fence; they don't shoot and kill the guy next door. But it isn't unusual for such feuds to end up in court, especially where trees are concerned, given that the tall beasts can be rooted in one yard but extend into another.
Meet Richard Treanor and Carolynn Bissett of Sunnyvale, California. This Prius-driving couple lives next door to self-described environmentalist Mark Vargas. You’d think the trio of greenies would get along, and they might, if it weren’t for the redwoods. Vargas sued Treanor and Bissett, claiming that the redwoods in their yard cast a shadow over the solar panels on his roof. That, he charged, violated a somewhat obscure state law: the Solar Shade Control Act, which carries fines of up to $1,000 per day.
The law, signed by former Gov. Jerry Brown in 1978, is rarely used. But county prosecutors say Treanor and Bissett are breaking it.
The law was written by former Assemblyman Chuck Imbrecht, a Ventura Republican, as a way to guarantee, amid the energy crises of the 1970s, that people who installed solar wouldn't see a drop in their investment from nearby trees. It affects only trees planted after 1979, and bans trees or shrubs from shading more than 10 percent of a neighbor's solar panels between 10 am and 2 pm.
It does not apply to trees or shrubs that were there before the solar panels were installed. But — and here's the key distinction — it does apply to existing trees and shrubs that later grew big enough to shade the solar panels. The redwoods, which Treanor and Bissett say they planted for privacy, are now between 20 and 40 feet tall.
We’d be pissed if we shelled out thousands of dollars for a technology that was blocked from functioning. Of course, we’d also be pissed if someone told us we had to cut down our greenhouse-gas absorbing, shade-providing trees. Tough call.
A senior court judge came up with a compromise of sorts: in December, he ruled that two of the eight trees had to be cut down and waived any fines.
Perhaps someday solar energy innovations (paintable solar cells, wearing your own electricity source, etc.) will lead to a more peaceful existence, where judges aren’t forced to choose between solar panels and trees. In the meantime, at least we haven’t seen any recent reports of one neighbor suing another because he thinks solar panels are ugly.
Story by Alisa Opar. This article originally appeared in Plenty in February 2008. The story was added to MNN.com in July 2009.