Clash over Valley solar project spurs push for more city control

Clash over Valley solar project spurs push for more city control
Los Angeles City Councilman Felipe Fuentes listens in on a council meeting on July 2, 2013. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

A Los Angeles councilman wants to tighten city control over solar installations after one proposed project -- an array of 3,500 solar cells slated for Lake View Terrace -- set off an uproar among neighbors in a rural, residential, horse-keeping area.

The push comes as the city has been striving to ramp up its use of renewable energy. Under a program run by the Department of Water and Power, businesses can install solar cells and sell the energy they generate back to the department.


But Councilman Felipe Fuentes said the installation of large arrays of solar cells on the ground -- rather than perched on rooftops -- can raise a host of issues that the city has too little power to control.

Neighbors in Lake View Terrace felt that an expanse of solar cells proposed for an empty lot off of Foothill Boulevard would be out of place and disrupt the tranquil area.

"Nobody's against solar," said Nancy Woodruff, vice president of the Foothill Trails District Neighborhood Council. "It just needs to be done in the proper environment."

Lake View Terrace resident Kristin Sabo said in a letter to Fuentes that such projects belong "in a commercial zone and on the roofs of properties that are already built, not slathered across every inch of unbuilt" residential or agricultural properties.

Neighbors recently won their local planning commission appeal against the Foothill Boulevard project, but the applicant still can sue to overturn the decision.

A bigger question is how much authority the city has to regulate solar projects under state law. Fuentes said that the state's Solar Rights Act limits the city to reviewing such solar installations for compliance with health and safety requirements.

The existing process doesn't allow the city to consider beneficial or adverse effects on surrounding neighborhoods, he said. Applications for at least two dozen "ground based" solar projects are pending, according to Fuentes' office.

A spokesman for City Atty. Mike Feuer said the office could not discuss advice it had given the planning department about the state's Solar Rights Act.

The law was authored by Mel Levine, president of the city DWP board,  when he was a state assemblyman. Levine said the state rules originally were meant to protect homeowners putting solar cells on their rooftops.

"This was in 1978," Levine said. "Solar was in its infancy." He said he had reached out to Fuentes to discuss the state rules and residents' concerns.

Fuentes wants the city attorney, the chief legislative analyst and several city departments to review the state law and suggest amendments that would give the city more control over such projects. The matter will continue to be examined in the City Council's Energy and Environment Committee, Fuentes said.