Cutting trees to save the planet |

Cutting trees to save the planet

Here’s an interesting case coming out of Sunnyvale that pits neighbor v. neighbor, tree huggers v. solar advocates. Rush Limbaugh would love it.

Richard Treanor and Carolynn Bissett own a Prius and are avowed environmentalists. In 1997 they planted redwood trees on their property along the fence separating their yard from neighbor Mark Vargus, who himself drives an electric car. Planting trees is favored. All parties established as green.In 2001, Vargus installed a 10-kilowatt solar system on his roof. It works. He pays about $60 a year in electric bills. I paid $400 last month for electric and the same for natural gas. I drive an Excursion not really (as to the Excursion). Vargus asked Treanor and Bissett to top or cut down some of the redwoods as they were blocking the sun from the solar panels, at least in recent years as the trees had grown. They refused, citing the benefits of trees.This was your standard neighbor v. neighbor beef until someone dug up the rarely used California Solar Shade Control Act signed into law by former Gov. Jerry Moonbeam Brown in 1978 during the 1970s energy crisis.

The California Solar Shade Control Act governs trees planted after Jan. 1, 1979, and remarkably, it even affects trees planted before that date that have grown sufficient to cast a shadow on a solar panel. The only grandfather exemption in the act is for trees, which at the time of installation of a solar collector, already cast a shadow upon the system.The act is applicable if trees cast a shadow greater than 10 percent over the collector absorption area on a solar panel between the hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. local standard time.The Solar Shade Control Act requires a solar owner to give his offending neighbor 30 days notice, then the complainant may file a complaint with the local prosecutor, like the city attorney or district attorney. At that point, if there is a violation of the act, the city attorney or district attorney must prosecute the offending neighbor-demanding the trees be topped or removed or face a fine of $1,000 a day. The act allows cities and counties to adopt ordinances exempting their jurisdictions from the Solar Shade Control Act, which of course would be politically incorrect.

The Santa Clara County District Attorney’s office went after Treanor and Bissett as required under the law. Superior Court Judge Kumli found the couple guilty and ordered two of eight trees removed. No fine was imposed.When the remaining six trees grow taller, I predict Treanor and Bissett will be dragged back into court. According to news reports, Treanor and Bissett appealed the decision. I’m not sure whats going to get them other than larger attorneys’ fees.

I support solar power. Who doesn’t? But I would feel better about the Solar Shade Control Act if it exempted trees planted before the solar system was installed. Interesting situation.Jim Porter is an attorney with Porter andamp; Simon, with offices in Truckee, South Lake Tahoe and Reno. He is a mediator and was the Governor’s appointee to the Bipartisan McPherson Commission and the California Fair Political Practices Commission. He may be reached at or at the firm’s Web site

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