Landowner Must Cut Redwoods to Accommodate Neighbor’s Solar Panels

Published April 1, 2008

In a battle between next-door neighbor environmentalists, a Sunnyvale, California couple is being ordered to cut down their backyard redwood trees or face up to $1,000 per day in fines.

The Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office issued the order to Richard Treanor and Carolynn Bissett after their neighbor, Mark Vargas, complained the redwoods were partially shading a solar power panel Vargas had installed a few years after the redwoods were planted.

Redwoods Must Fall

In 1978, then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed the Solar Shade Control Act, which gives solar panel owners the legal right to prevent neighboring trees from growing in a manner that interferes with solar power panels. Treanor and Bissett planted several redwoods in their backyard between 1997 and 1999. Vargas installed an extensive network of solar panels on his roof in 2001.

As the redwoods grew, they eventually began shading a portion of Vargas’s solar panels at certain times of the day.

Vargas initially asked Treanor and Bissett to cut down their redwoods. When they refused, he asked that they cut off the top half of the trees, leaving just the bottom portion of the tree trunks. When Treanor and Bissett again refused, Vargas contacted the district attorney, who took Vargas’s side in the dispute.

“We are the first citizens in the state of California to be convicted of a crime for growing redwood trees,” Bissett, who drives a Prius and is a self-proclaimed environmentalist, told the San Jose Mercury News for a January 24 story.

Californians Shocked by Ruling

The plight of Treanor and Bissett has generated shock and a great deal of sympathy from fellow Californians.

“Don’t ask me to cut down my trees just because they tower over your solar panels,” wrote Mercury News columnist Patty Fisher in a January 28 editorial. “I don’t care if the law is on your side. A law that condemns trees simply for growing is a law that needs to be rewritten.

“Trees are about as green as you can get, even when they shed their leaves,” Fisher noted. “Trees not only produce oxygen and reduce carbon dioxide but also provide habitat for woodland critters. They beautify our neighborhoods, providing screening and cooling shade.”

Sierra Club Tied to Solar

Kurt Newick, chairman of the global warming committee of the Loma Prieta Chapter of the Sierra Club, disagrees. He says Treanor and Bissett should be forced to cut down their redwoods.

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

Newick is a solar panel salesman.

James M. Taylor ([email protected]) is a senior fellow of The Heartland Institute and managing editor of Environment & Climate News.