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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?

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The Vargas home is a scene of familial pandemonium. Three Vargas children and two playmates – ages 3 to 7 – twitter about the living room where police officer Tom Leipelt is telling Vargas's wife, Melissa, not to worry about a voice mail the family just received. As Mrs. Vargas tells it, a "crazy woman from Quebec" said, "I hope that you suffer and your family suffers."

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Mr. Vargas says he has grown used to the recognition that comes with TV appearances – from supporters who say "hello" in the Safeway parking lot to silent drive-by gawkers.

He ambles into the narrow strip of yard protected from the slanting afternoon sun by the now-famous phalanx of redwoods. On the trellis several feet above his head sit 48 solar panels. These, along with 80 more on the roof, supply 100 percent of the family's electricity.

He seems content with his $70,000 investment, yet vague on any altruism behind it.

"That's a hard question," he admits. "But to be a producer of electricity, to have my own supply of energy from the sun, I think that's amazing in of itself." Beyond that, Vargas's popular image as a green crusader begins to fall flat.

"I've been labeled an environmentalist because of the solar power and the electric car," he says.

But the truth lies more in shades of gray than chlorophyll green. Sure, he drives an electric car – but he also has two SUVs and a diesel pickup. "I don't have a problem driving my gas-powered vehicles."

Vargas is a regular guy – enamored by cool technologies that do worthwhile things. The juxtaposition of solar panels and SUVs reflects a broader public appetite not for energy-saving habits, but for technical fixes: ethanol, solar, fuel cells, and hybrid autos that sometimes consume as much gas as many nonhybrids. You might call it the low-fat cheesecake approach to carbon dieting.
Bissett's family moved into the house on Benton Street in 1969, when she was 10; a walnut and cherry orchard stood where the Vargas home eventually would be built in 1992.

Bissett and Treanor moved back into her childhood home in 1995. They relandscaped the backyard: removing a nectarine tree and silk oak, and planting drought-resistant flowers and grass. They built a trellis and garden planters with recycled plastic materials. The first shoulder-height redwood arrived as a gift from a friend in 1997; it's now 40 feet tall.

"I'm planning to live here another 40 years," says Bissett, and those redwoods were "for me to grow old with." She wouldn't have guessed that they'd land her in court last September – alongside drunken drivers, purse snatchers, wife beaters, and one handcuffed man in an orange jail jumpsuit – where she'd plead innocent on the criminal charge of tree cultivation.
That there is an inevitable conflict between trees and solar power "is a false proposition," says Ralph Knowles, professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Southern California and an authority on sunlight in urban landscapes. The potential for conflict hinges on the type of tree, he says. Unlike evergreens, deciduous trees shade a yard during summer but shed their leaves in winter, providing light when solar panels are most starved of it.

The Solar Shade Control Act went unnoticed for 30 years, but since December it has come up in several lawsuits, says Stamen, the tree lawsuit specialist. "The legal system," he says, "will see [more of] these cases in the near future."

Treanor and Bissett hope to influence that. "We woke up one morning essentially violating criminal law," says Treanor.

But they learned on March 5 that they had won California State Sen. Joe Simitian's annual "There Ought to Be a Law" contest, in which he solicits legislative suggestions from constituents.

Senator Simitian plans to rework the law to provide greater protection for preexisting trees and address violations as civil disputes between citizens rather than criminal cases.