Turf War Over Solar Panels
by Nick Welsh
The fine print of a proposal designed to make it faster, easier, and cheaper for most Santa Barbara property owners to obtain the permits needed to install a home solar power system has come under attack from solar industry advocates. These opponents see the proposal as a Trojan horse that would undermine broader efforts — publicly embraced by City Hall — to encourage solar energy.
Some industry advocates have already threatened legal action, contending the draft proposal floated by city planners seeks to give back to Santa Barbara building officials the ultimate review authority that the state legislature took away two years ago when it approved California’s Solar Bill of Rights. That bill stops local governments from blocking solar projects because of aesthetic objections. “Santa Barbara is making great strides toward becoming a green city on a hill, but if they go down this road, they’re going to get sued,” warned Tam Hunt, a solar advocate with the Community Environmental Council.
City planners stress they are not advocating any specific course of action but insist they are merely consulting with the city’s Planning Commission this Thursday to see which way the commissioners want to go. On the table is a proposal that would allow solar installations in side-yard setbacks. The commissioners will also be asked to comment on a host of voluntary design guidelines and on a plan to bestow awards to the most aesthetically pleasing solar installations.
All of these suggestions have been greeted favorably by Hunt and others in the solar industry. But what has their dander up is language that could give the city’s chief building official the authority to order that larger solar proposals — those generating more than 10 kilowatts a year — be subjected to the rigors of design review. In order to do so, the official would have to make the case that the project is so big or jarring that it might affect “the health and welfare” of the community.
As city planner Heather Baker explained, “It probably would never be necessary, but what happens if we get beaned with a sore-thumb project in a highly visible public space? It might be helpful to have a safeguard.” Baker expressed most concern about large-scale solar projects in the city’s historic districts or on historic structures. The city’s legal challenge in such an instance would be to make a convincing case that the visual disruption caused by a large, unattractive rooftop photovoltaic system can be detrimental to health and welfare.
To this end, Baker and her boss, Jaime Limon, have developed a few possible rationales that leave solar advocates sputtering. For example, the planners have suggested that poorly integrated solar power systems could undermine a well-defined architectural heritage, upon which Santa Barbara’s $900 million tourist industry rests. They’ve also cited studies showing that people are more inclined to walk in pleasant-looking areas, and that the architectural dissonance caused by poorly designed rooftop photovoltaics might discourage people from walking — thus perpetuating the epidemic of obesity. Likewise, they’ve cited studies indicating that poor architectural design can be damaging for people suffering from depression. Baker acknowledged City Hall has yet to embrace any evidence as conclusive but said she’d like to know if the planning commissioners want to pursue these questions.
Chris Farley, owner of the Solar Energy Company, countered that the benefits of solar energy outweigh any public health considerations, whether real or imaginary. “For every 10-kilowatt solar power system we install, we manage to keep about 136,000 pounds of carbon dioxide out of the air each year,” he said. “Are you telling me the benefits of cleaning up the air — especially for people with asthma and emphysema — don’t outweigh the problems that some people might experience who find solar setups visually displeasing?” Although Farley opposed any aesthetic review requirements for solar, he did say historic structures and districts should be protected from solar developments.
Farley also claimed City Hall’s interest in reasserting some last-ditch regulatory authority was motivated in some measure by the expectation that MarBorg Industries intended to install solar panels on the rooftop of its massive new Quarantina Street recycling “shed,” readily visible to passing motorists on Highway 101. MarBorg chief Mario Borgatello is one of Farley’s clients, and he did, in fact, have plans for such a solar installation but has since backed off.