Ask the County Law Librarian – Trees and Solar Panels
Q: My neighbor has been complaining constantly to be about my trees blocking his solar panels. I just received a formal letter from him, saying he’s going to sue me if I don’t cut my trees so they don’t block his solar panels. My trees do not hang over the fence or in any way cross onto his property, so can he really force me to cut them? And can he really sue me?
It really comes down to one question: what came first, your trees or the solar panels?
In 1978, California passed the Solar Shade Control Act (Public Resources Code 25980-25986). California is one of the only states in the country with a law specifically governing this topic. The law was intended to encourage the planting of trees and shrubs to create shade and moderate temperature, and to support the use of alternative energy devices such as solar energy collectors.
The Solar Shade Control Act applies only to fixed solar collection devices installed on the roof of a building, or on the ground if rooftop installation is impossible. If installed on the ground, very specific height and set-back restrictions apply. Improperly installed solar devices are not protected by this law.
Under this law, property owners are prohibited from allowing their trees or shrubs to shade more than 10% of a neighbor’s solar energy system between the hours of 10am and 2pm. Any tree or shrub planted before the installation of the solar collector is exempt. If a pre-existing tree dies, its replacement is also exempt, even if the replacement is planted after the solar collector’s installation. The law also exempts trees and shrubs planted on timberland or commercial agricultural land.
The state law also allows local governments to exempt themselves from the Solar Shade Control Act by way of a local ordinance. These exemptions apply only to trees and shrubs planted and maintained by the local government, not to privately owned trees. Sacramento County has exempted all unincorporated parts of the county from this law. Many local cities, including Sacramento, Rancho Cordova, and Citrus Heights have also exempted themselves from the law. Others, such as Davis, have exempted themselves from the state law, and instead adopted a local ordinance on the topic.
Under Public Resources Code section 25983, a tree owner who fails to remove or alter a tree or shrub after receiving a written request from the owner of the affected solar collector is committing a private nuisance, as defined in California Civil Code section 3481. The solar collector’s owner may pursue a civil suit against the tree owner for abatement of the nuisance.
If you’d like more information about this law, including a detailed explanation of the exceptions, related case law, and questions to ask yourself when determining if there’s been a violation of the California Solar Shade Control Act, consider reading this excellent article from the Journal of Sustainable Real Estate, ‘‘Hey, Your Tree I s Shading My Solar Panels”: California’s Solar Shade Control Act.
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