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Solar energy trumps shade in California prosecution of tree owner

Across a backyard fence: When is the environmentalism greener on the other side?

By Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor / March 18, 2008

Shades of green: The Santa Clara County district attorney pressed criminal charges against Richard Treanor (not shown) for the shade his redwoods cast on the solar panels that Mark Vargas uses for 100 percent of his home’s power.

Jeff Chiu/AP

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Sunnyvale, Calif.

It started as a typical over-the-back-fence suburban neighborhood chat, not the kind of thing that would escalate into a criminal prosecution. Carolynn Bissett and her husband, Richard Treanor, were pulling weeds in their backyard on Benton Street here on a July day in 2001, when their neighbor Mark Vargas peeked over the fence for a chat.

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Mr. Vargas said he planned to install solar panels on the trellis behind his house – meaning he needed access to sunlight. But the row of eight 10- to 25-foot redwoods along that edge of the couple's backyard would have to go – or be shortened, or perhaps replaced with smaller trees.

They asked Vargas to come discuss the matter in their backyard.

So, in a suburban odyssey symbolic of the chasm between people with different ideas of how to use nature, he got in his car and drove nearly a mile to his neighbors' front door. The two families have adjacent backyards, but in suburbia's labyrinth, there is no easy walk between them. So their front doors stand in two different cities – Sunnyvale and Santa Clara.

Perhaps that disconnect foreshadowed what would transpire. Accounts of the backyard discussion differ – whether or not Vargas offered to pay for tree removal, or who first threatened legal action – but one thing is certain: The parties haven't spoken since.

The ensuing paper chase through city ordinances, planning commissions, and permit hearings has consumed seven years and tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees, and – through California's obscure 1978 Solar Shade Control Act, which criminalizes the shading of solar panels by trees – resulted in the Santa Clara County District Attorney prosecuting Mr. Treanor and Ms. Bissett.

A judge convicted the tree owners on Dec. 10 and ordered two of the eight trees cut down.

The redwoods were planted between 1997 and 1999. The solar panels were installed in 2001 by Vargas, who moved here in 1993.

Photos from 2001 show that two of the trees didn't shade the panels for the first year after installation, but have since grown to shade more than 10 percent of the collectors between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.

So, says Treanor who has hired an arborist to do the job, "at 9 a.m. on March 26, Mr. Perez will be here to whack our trees."

The case has gained national traction. CNN visited both households, and Vargas just turned down Jon Stewart of the Daily Show.

The fascination is predictable. It sounds like an epic struggle of values: trees versus solar; Vargas, who drives an electric car versus. Treanor and Bissett, who own a Prius. Chat rooms bristle with invective defending the trees' right to exist, and naysayers ridicule the case as a parable of green hypocrisy.

"People are very, very emotional about their trees," explains Randall Stamen, a Riverside, Calif., lawyer who specializes in tree lawsuits. "If you've planted a tree and watched it grow, you've invested an awful lot in it."

But despite the emotions the case has sparked, it fits poorly with the moral story line into which it has been shoehorned.
The now-famous electric car sits outside the Vargases's garage, sipping sunlight from the house's 128 solar panels.