Turf War Over Solar Panels

by Nick Welsh

Mario-%26-Brian-Borgatello.jpgThe 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

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.


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