Thinking of Solar? Everyone Should Know Their Rights and Laws in California

Sacramento Solar News – The 1978 California Solar Rights Act does not necessarily bar reasonable restrictions on solar installations. It does establish the legal right to a solar easement, defines which solar energy systems are covered by its provisions, and limits local governments from adopting ordinances that would unreasonably restrict the use of solar energy systems.

Here is an excellent analysis of of the solar laws and property rights that was posted recently and is worth a moments of everyones time that is considering solar. The bottom line, tell your neighbors what you are going to do. They will appreciate the heads up and you will be the pride and joy of the neighborhood for going solar. Read More

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Background to Solar Laws

Not applicable in California, the “Doctrine of Ancient Lights” is a common-law principle meaning that after a property owner has made continuous use of a property for 20 years, that owner acquires an easement preventing neighbors from building obstructions that block light from passing through windows or into the building of the adjoining property or interfere with that light. Save for some minor exceptions, California favors property owners who develop their properties; it generally does not follow the Ancient Light principle. In fact, to create an easement for light or air or view in California, one must do so by express (written) grant or reservation, agreement between parties, or reasonable covenants and restrictions recorded against the property.

In response to the United States’ Energy Crisis in the mid-1970s, the California Legislature enacted the Solar Rights Act (“SRA”) and the Solar Shade Control Act (“SSCA”).

The SRA was designed to promote solar energy usage and systems and to facilitate adequate access to sunlight. The SRA limits restrictions on solar energy systems: while it creates solar easements or the “right to receive sunlight across the property of another,” it still requires written grants. The SRA also defines “solar energy systems” (both passive and active systems) and provides guidelines for local governments. Along with the SRA and SSCA, a few Court of Appeal cases provide the basis for solar collector rules, regulations, and laws in California.

Enacted in 1978, the Solar Shade Control Act (“SSCA”) was drafted with the intention of promoting the use of solar energy by preventing one’s solar collectors from being blocked or shaded by another’s trees. One downside to the SSCA was that a homeowner whose pre-existing trees grew to shade a new home solar panel installation could be criminally prosecuted for failure to cut back the offending trees. In fact, a Santa Clara County couple was convicted in criminal court of violation of the SSCA in 2007. In response to this harsh result for the California Legislature changed the SSCA in pertinent as described below:

Four Primary Elements of the SSCA

Notice Requirements – CA Pub. Res. Code Sec. 25980 et seq.

Property owners contemplating solar collector installations are authorized to provide pre-installation, written notice by certified mail to owners of adjacent of affected properties. It is not clear whether this will lead to people rushing to plant trees when they receive notice that their neighbors are planning solar collector installations. Also, there will likely be disagreements and conflicting evidence during litigation as to when offending trees were planted.

Timely Installation – CA Pub. Res. Code Sec. 25982.1

Trees planted before solar collectors are installed are exempt. Thus, under the amendment, the convicted couple, and their trees could have remained in place despite shading the subsequently installed solar panels.

Solar Collector Defined – CA Pub. Res. Code Sec. 25984

A “solar collector” must be on the roof of a building, unless that is impossible due to specified conditions (such as roof slope, inappropriate roof materials, structural shading, or orientation to building). More and more solar collectors are being installed in locations other than on a roof in order to fall within the terms of the SSCA. Property owners contemplating installation must anticipate all possible problems that may arise if they don’t install the collectors on the roof.

Converted to a Private Nuisance – CA Pub. Res. Code Sec. 25981

Violations of the SSCA will no longer be prosecuted by the district attorney. Thus, homeowners can now bring civil lawsuits to enforce their rights to sunshine. With the increasing demand for solar collector installations, we are sure to see more cases in this area in the near future.

Lesson Learned

If you are considering a solar collector installation, it would be prudent to understand the state of the law (i.e., the current SSCA and related statutes), make a detailed evaluation of the surrounding properties for pre-existing trees, and be mindful of all of the ramifications of getting into a dispute with a neighbor over being green. If you are intending to plant trees and your next-door neighbor has installed solar panel array, make sure you are prepared to maintain and cut back those trees once they reach the roof height so as to stay in conformance with the SSCA. One unintended consequence of the SSCA and its amendments over the years may be a race to see who can get their solar collectors or trees established First, he or she will win first Green!