Trees vs. Solar Panels: Fight!Monday, January 28, 2008 14:30
As a libertarian, the subject of environmentalism often makes me uneasy and this dispute in California makes for a good example of why that is. The facts of the case are as follows: from 1997 to 1999, Richard Treanor and Carolynn Bissett planted eight redwood trees in the yard behind their house in Santa Clara county. In 2001, after the trees were already planted, their neighbour, Mark Vargas, decides to install a 10-kilowatt solar power system in his house. At the time, Vargas knew that his neighbours’ trees would eventually grow so big as to cover the sunlight that his solar panels would need, so he approached Treanor and Bissett and asked them to remove the trees or trim them back. They refused, stating that they planted the trees for privacy reasons. Vargas went ahead and installed his solar system anyway.
Flash forward to 2005 and the trees are now big and tall and blocking the sunlight to the solar panels as expected. Vargas files charges against the couple and the prosecutors agree. They say that the couple are in violation of a law signed in 1978 to promote the use of solar panels and bans trees from blocking sunlight to them. It’s called the Solar Shade Control Act and under it, the couple are threatened with fines of up to $1,000.00 a day if they fail to trim or remove their trees but it appears that this is the first time that this law has actually been invoked. At the end of 2005, a judge rules partially in Vargas’ favour, ordering that 2 of the 8 trees must be removed but waiving the fines if the couple complies. Fearing that agreeing to it would create an awful precedent, the couple decided to appeal instead.
This case is interesting for libertarians because it’s a great example of private rights being sacrificed in the name of public good. The private right in this case being the right of property owners to do what they want with their property, including planting trees on them, and the public good being that even though trees are good for the environment, solar panels turn out to be even better. As a spokesperson for the Sierra Club notes, while a tree sequesters 14 pounds of carbon dioxide a year, a solar system does that every two or three days. The great irony here is that both families are proud environmentalists: the article takes pains to note that Treanor and Bissett own a Toyota Prius while Vargas drives an electric car.
The state of California is famous for passing laws such as this for promoting environmental issues, and in my opinion, this is an example of it going overboard. Here’s another example that was made into law earlier this year. This one is by the Calabasas City Council and attempts to regulate smoking in rental housing. The article notes that, “The new ordinance will ban smoking in 80 percent of apartment buildings by Jan. 1, 2012. Up to 20 percent of buildings can be set aside as smoking buildings. In addition, smokers living in apartments designated as nonsmoking will be “grandfathered in” and permitted to puff away until they move.”
The original proposal went much further and sought to ban all smoking in all apartment complexes in the city, but was watered down when Mayor James Bozajian said that residents should be allowed to smoke in their own apartments and that the city shouldn’t ban smoking completely while cigarettes are still legal. Calabasas was the first city in the United States that attempted to limit smoking in public areas in 2006, a move that that since been copied in Burbank and Beverley Hills.
As a non-smoker, I will the first to admit that I find smoking in public areas to be extremely annoying, but as a libertarian, I sincerely hope that I am not alone in being worried about this level of government interference in people’s private lives. It’s great to be concerned about the environment and about health, but it’s still up to individuals to decide what to do with their lives and with their property.