County near San Francisco pioneers in solar-energy rules

In sunny Santa Clara County, Calif., just east of San Francisco, the board of supervisors has passed three "solar ordinances" that probably go further in supporting solar energy than any other local legislation in the nation, according to Robert Sturdivant, senior county planner.

The ordinances require an energy audit of homes that are sold; mandate solar hot-water heating for new homes; and protect homeowners' access to solar energy in future subdivisions.

The ordinances have caused some heat in the local real-estate and construction industries, however. Both industries are concerned about the increasing cost of new homes and prefer a voluntary rather than a mandatory program.

"Government at all levels seems to have a penchant for creating a supposed crisis, trumpeting dire consequences, and pleading for voluntary citizen sacrifice and cooperation, and then immediately passing laws mandating compliance, with stiff penalties for offenders," John K. Barbour, regional vice-president of the California Association of Realtors, argues.

Rod Diridon, the county supervisor who initiated the ordinances, feels mandatory compliance is necessary, pointing out that good insulation was not installed in most homes before it was required by law.

These ordinances affect only the unincorporated areas of the county but could be adopted by local cities as well.

The energy audit, required by the first ordinance, must be done on all homes sold after next Oct. 1. Before being sold, the homes must have ceiling insulation, weatherstripping, hot-water-heater blankets, flow restrictors in showers or low-flow shower heads, and duct installation. Any broken windowpanes or holes in the walls that allow air infiltration must be repaired. The ordinance also requires insulation of recirculating hot-water pipes or steam pipes.

According to John Cook of the county's energy task force, this ordinance will be the biggest energy saver. After five years, 12 million therms of natural gas -- the yearly gas needs of 14,000 households -- should have been saved. Thus, over the five-year period, future hom buyers could save up to $4.8 million on utility bills.

If the ordinance were adopted by the cities within Santa Clara County as well as the unincorporated areas, the projected savings would be even greater. approximately 132 million therms of gas would be saved after five years, or enough for the yearly gas needs of an estimated 159,000 homes.

The second ordinance requires that all new homes in the unincorporated area be equipped with solar hot-water heating devices by next January. The supervisors voted to require existing homes sold after January 1983 to have such hot-water heating systems, also. But they agreed to reconsider this retrofitting part of the ordinance at a later date.

The final, or "solar easement," ordinance, which becomes effective on Oct. 1 this year, requires developers of new subdivisions to submit an energy-conservation plan for maximum use of solar energy.

Developers also must dedicate solar easements forbidding homeowners from building additions or planting vegetation high enough to shade their neighbors' homes. However, two homeowners could negotiate away easement rights as long as neither owner was the initial developer.

The county does not plan to stop with these three ordinances. Two more ordinances will probably go before the county planning commission in June. If the commission approves them, they will go before the board of supervisors.

One ordinance bans the use of natural gas in any new swimming pool unless the pool is for therapeutic purposes. The other, if passed, will guarantee solar access to existing solar systems.

The swimming-pool ordinance has met resistance from the swimming-pool industry, which is pushing for the allowance of natural gas as a backup. The San Diego and Santa Barbara ordinances allow such a backup, according to Mr. Cook.

But the stickest ordinance legally is the one that would guarantee solar access to existing solar systems. For example, if a homeowner had a solar greenhouse attached to his house, his neighbor could not plant a large tree that would block the sun.

"This ordinance is conceptually the most difficult," Mr. Cook explained. "We're running into legal problems of competing property rights in existing neighborhoods," he adds.

The ordinance would require a series of amendments to zoning ordinances and possibly building codes, according to Mr. Cook.

"We're out in the cold on this one," he concludes. "This hasn't been done anyplace else."

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