A recent proposal by Santa Monica city officials to simplify the permit application process to install photovoltaic panels has drawn concerns from solar advocates who believe that a new provision could prevent interested property owners in the future.

The issue in question concerns a section of a new ordinance that would require solar energy equipment to be installed in a location that is least visible from adjacent streets as long as it does not significantly increase cost and reduce performance.

Under the new regulations, solar panels may be located up to five feet above the roof’s surface or seven feet for solar water and swimming pool heating systems. Single-family homes have extra flexibility.

“The city of Santa Monica is very proactive in implementing sustainable policies and encouraging solar power,” stated Bruce Leech, Special Projects Administrator for the city.

Santa Monica city officials adopted this ordinance just last week with only one dissenter – Council member Gleam Davis – and after having heard several speakers who asked that the provision be stricken from the proposal.

The ordinance will officially take effect after it has a second reading at a future meeting.

Leech said the ordinance’s main purpose lies to simplify the permit process for solar panel instillation by establishing development standards. Also, administrative approval is allowed as long instillation has met needed criteria.

Solar systems that don’t meet standards will need approval from the Architectural Review Board which Leech calls “pretty liberal” in their decision making.

Leech dismissed the idea that this proposal would prevent prospective property owners.

“Our city staff runs a sustainable program that actually helps and coordinates with homeowners to install solar,” stated Leech. “This new ordinance also complies with the Solar Rights Act.”

Santa Monica seems to be trailblazers with this new law. When asked if any other cities had attempted an ordinance such as this, Leech simply responded, “We honestly don’t know.”

Those city officials in favor of the ordinance, including Eileen Fogarty, Director of the cities Planning and Community Development Department, have gone on record saying that the new law is not about aesthetics, but is rather an objective zoning standard concerning height or other issues that could have potential impacts.

Leech echoed those sentiments saying that while the city is pro “physical development,” the ordinance was more about simplifying the permit process.

“Most cities are cities that have design review and would like to consider aesthetics but the Solar Rights Act requires cites to enact procedures that are ministerial,” stated Leech.  “So this sets up the ministerial process that avoids design review.”

The New York Times has recently reported on how several solar panels have fallen prey to theft in California. Leech dismissed those ideas. “It has nothing to do with theft.”

Leech stated that people or businesses with solar panels need to be attentive to the new law.

“If they’re just putting (solar panels) on the front because that’s the cheapest and easiest place to install it, the criteria says they need to put it somewhere else, making it less visible, subject to not affecting performance or cost,” said Leech.

Gleam Davis was the lone council member to vote in opposition to the ordinance, saying that the provision presumes that solar panels are ugly.

Some have argued that the new ordinance conflicts with existing state law. Others said that the provision will create extra steps for applicants to receive their permits, having to return to City Hall to show how moving the panels would affect cost.

Finally, solar advocates have come out against the ordinance citing that city officials should eliminate barriers to renewable energy, not be creating new ones, which is what they believe this new ordinance is doing.

Link to the staff report of the ordinance can be found here.

Andrew Carico can be reached at acarico@publicceo.com