February 25th, 2008
10:34 PM ET

Environmentally, which wins out: Solar Panels or Redwoods?

It seems like a match made in heaven - two Santa Clara, California neighbors, both concerned about the environment. Richard Treanor and Carolynn Bissett (no relation to JFK Jr.’s late wife) planted eight redwood trees in their yard between 1997 and 1999. Their next door neighbor, Mark Vargas, installed a solar panel system on his roof in 2001 drastically reduce his energy bill.

The panels soaked up the sun’s rays; the redwoods grew. Then the trouble began in the form of the rarely enforced California Solar Shade Control Act, signed into law by then-governor Jerry Brown in 1978. The law is very specific. It does not require trees planted before installation of solar panels to be removed, but it does require that foliage grown tall enough to shade areas of solar panels previously in the sun be cut back. Vargas complained his neighbors were violating the law, and Treanor and Bissett were criminally charged by the Santa Clara district attorney.

It’s fair to say that each neighbor feels bitter about the way the other handled the dispute. In many ways it cuts to the heart of what a person can or cannot do on his own land. But the law is fairly clear and in December last year , a judge ruled that two of the trees had to come down; the other six could stay. He also waived the $1000-per-day fine imposed by the law.

At first Treanor and Bissett initially appealed, but after spending $34,000 in legal fees, they decided to cut the two trees. Vargas will have the sun hitting all of his solar panels; Treanor and Bissett will still be able to enjoy six of the original eight trees, but it’s unlikely we’ll find either chatting over the back fence about the beautiful day, the sound of the birds, or their concern for environmental issues.

And the fight may not be completely over. The remaining six redwood trees continue to grow…

-Peter Ornstein, 360° Producer

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