California Bill Chooses Redwoods over Solar Panel

Published July 1, 2008

California State Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto) has introduced a bill declaring the state’s iconic redwoods the victor over solar panels in a battle between environmental interest groups.

The conflict came to a head in January, when a California judge ordered a Sunnyvale couple to cut down or drastically reduce the size of their backyard redwood trees, which were partially shading a neighbor’s rooftop solar panels.

The California Solar Shade Control Act, passed at the urging of environmental activists in 1978, gives solar panel owners the right to prevent neighbors’ trees from shading their solar panels.

Simitian’s proposed law would exempt trees that were planted prior to the installation of a solar array.

As Simitian told the Palo Alto Online News, “Right now, a new neighbor can move in next to you, install a solar energy system and then–under threat of criminal prosecution–force you to take an ax to your trees if and when they grow.”

Simitian’s bill passed the Senate in late April by a 38-0 vote. The California State Assembly is scheduled to vote on the bill in July.

Environmentalists Split

The Sunnyvale case generated enormous press attention, with people all over the country taking sides. After the court ruled against the owners of the redwoods, news crews from around the world gathered to document the cutting of the trees.

Environmental activist groups began taking sides against each other over the dispute.

Those who favored chopping down the redwoods noted solar panels produce power without emitting greenhouse gases, and argued they therefore should trump the redwood trees. Other environmental activist groups argued a small amount of solar power generation did not justify sacrificing the state’s famous redwoods.

Kurt Newick, chairman of the global warming committee of the Loma Prieta Chapter of the Sierra Club, argued for chopping down the redwoods.

Newick, a solar panel salesman, told the San Jose Mercury News, “It’s actually better for the environment to put solar on your roof than to plant a tree.”

E. Jay Donovan ([email protected]) writes from Tampa, Florida.