Again I can’t resist returning to the subject of property rights as they relate to trees.  Of course it’s once again in California.  This time, however, the trees lose.

There is a law in California, adopted in 1978, that says you can’t cause more than ten percent of your neighbor’s solar panels to be shaded between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.  A couple in Sunnyvale, California (it’s a suburb of San Jose), planted redwood trees in their yard.  Over time, the redwood trees grew to the point that they shaded some solar panels on an adjacent lot.  The owner of the solar panels, apparently after unsuccessfully attempting to persuade the redwood tree owners to cut the trees, convinced the local prosecutor to prosecute the redwood tree owners for violating the “don’t shade my solar panels” law (officially known as the Solar Shade Control Act).  Do I even need to say that this could only happen in California?

As you, my loyal readers, know from my previous writings, there are some California communities in which the redwood tree owners might be prohibited from cutting their trees, or at least might have to go through a lot of bureaucratic red tape to get permission to cut the trees.  That apparently is not the case in Sunnyvale (aptly named, no?).  The redwood tree owners are fighting back and complaining that it’s not fair, but it sounds like they are going to lose the argument.

The San Jose Mercury News, where I got the information on this most unusual neighbor v. neighbor dispute, had a helpful aerial photo of the affected properties.  The roof and most of the yard of the solar panel owner’s home are covered with solar panels.  So now I suppose that if you are going to buy a house in California and plan on planting trees, you will need to add “check for solar panels on neighboring property” to the list of things to check out when you are investigating the neighborhood.

Perhaps this is a harbinger of things to come in California, if the California Public Utilities Commission has its way.  The Commission has set a goal that beginning in 2020 (that’s not as far off as it sounds) all new homes built in California must be “zero net energy,” meaning that each home must consume no more energy in a year than can be produced by solar panels or other renewable energy sources on the home site.  Unless some other small scale, mass-production renewable energy source is invented in the next twelve years (rooftop electricity-generating windmills?) that means every new home will have to have lots of solar panels.

Solar and wind power are great things.  They can save the world.  If you want to save the world with solar power, just be ready to sacrifice other property interests that may get in its way, such as trees or anything else that might make shade where solar panels want to be (or, if you prefer windmills, be ready to sacrifice birds and unobstructed views where the windmills will be).  I’m not making any value judgments, just reminding you that in real estate law, as in just about everything else, promoting one particular interest as an unqualified good means subordinating other interests, regardless of the benefits of those other interests.  It sounds like decision makers in California have made the decision that when other interests compete with solar power, solar power wins.


Confirming what principles of basic economics (i.e. the law of supply and demand) should tell us, land use regulations that decrease the supply of land available for housing cause the cost of housing to increase.  A University of Washington economist has the data to prove it, according to a February 14, 2008 article in the Seattle Times:

Between 1989 and 2006, the median inflation-adjusted price of a Seattle house rose from $221,000 to $447,800.  Fully $200,000 of that increase was the result of land-use regulations, says Theo Eicher – twice the financial impact that regulation has had on other major U.S. cities.

“In a nationwide study, it can be shown that Seattle is one of the most regulated cities and a city whose housing prices are profoundly influenced by regulations,” he says.

A key regulation is the state’s Growth Management Act, enacted in 1990 in response to widespread public concern that sprawl could destroy the area’s unique character.  To preserve it, the act promoted restrictions on where housing can be built.  The result is artificial density that has driven up home prices by limiting supply, Eicher says.

Long building-permit approval times and municipal land-use restrictions…also have played significant roles in increasing Seattle’s housing costs, he adds.

So, even though I have told you before, don’t just take my word for it.  I may not have learned much in the economics course I took in college (I’m sure the instructor had a thorough command of the subject matter, but I never did quite catch on to his Afro-French-accented English), but it makes sense to me that if you make less land available in a place where people want to live, and make rules that increase the cost of getting building permits, houses in that area will become more expensive.