In an environmental dispute seemingly scripted for eco-friendly California, a man asked prosecutors to file charges against his neighbors because their towering redwoods blocked sunlight to his backyard solar panels.
But the couple next door insisted they should not have to chop down the trees to accommodate Mark Vargas' energy demands because they planted the redwoods before he installed the solar panels in 2001.
Experts say such clashes could become more common as California promotes renewable energy and solar systems become more popular. "Five or 10 years ago, you wouldn't have seen this case because there weren't that many systems around," said Frank Schiavo, a retired environmental-studies professor at San Jose State University. "I can almost guarantee there are going to be more conflicts."
After more than six years of legal wrangling, a judge ordered Richard Treanor and his wife, Carolyn Bissett, to cut down two of their eight redwoods, citing an obscure state law that protects a homeowner's right to sunlight.
The Solar Shade Control Act means homeowners can "suddenly become a criminal the day a tree grows big enough to shade a solar panel," Treanor said.
The case is the first time a homeowner has been convicted of violating the law, which was enacted three decades ago, when few people had solar systems.
The law requires homeowners to keep their trees or shrubs from shading more than 10 percent of a neighbor's solar panels between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Existing trees that cast shadows when the panels are installed are exempt, but new growth is subject to the law.
Residents can be fined up to $1,000 a day for violations, though the judge did not impose any fines against the Treanors.
Vargas says the law protects his $70,000 investment in solar power, and he believes it should be strengthened.
"I think it's unfair that a neighbor can take away this source of energy from another neighbor," he said.
Solar power is growing rapidly in California, by far the nation's biggest generator of solar energy. In 2007, more than 30,000 California homes and businesses had rooftop solar panels, with the capacity to generate 400 megawatts of electricity. That's as much as eight power plants, says the nonprofit Environment California.
Both sides say they want to do what's best for the environment.
Treanor and Bissett, who drive a hybrid Toyota Prius, argue that trees absorb carbon dioxide, cool the air and provide a habitat for wildlife.
Vargas, who has an electric car, counters it would take 2 or 3 acres of trees to reduce carbon dioxide emissions as much as the solar panels.