Solar panals line the west side of the 502 Colorado Ave. apartment complex. Solar advocates are concerned about a law passed by the City Council that requires panels and other equipment be installed in the least visible location. (photo by Brandon Wise)

CITY HALL — A proposal by city officials to streamline the permit application process to install photovoltaic panels has drawn concerns from solar advocates who believe that a new provision could deter interested property owners in the future.

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

The City Council adopted the ordinance, including the controversial provision, at the meeting on Tuesday, but only after hearing from more than a dozen speakers who asked that the subsection be striken.

“We should eliminate barriers to renewable energy, not create new ones,” Alexandra Kravetz, the policy associate for Santa Monica-based Global Green USA, said.

The ordinance, which will take effect after a second reading at a future meeting, is meant to streamline the permit process for solar panel installation, establishing objective development standards and allowing administrative approval as long as it meets those criteria. Solar systems that don’t fall under the standards will need approval from the Architectural Review Board.

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.

Eileen Fogarty, the planning and community development director, said that the subsection is not about aesthetics, but is rather an objective zoning standard that deals with height or other issues that could have an impact.

“We do not see it as a disincentive,” she said.

Some argued that the provision requiring that solar panels be placed in the least visible location is not in line with state law.

Nancy Whang, an attorney representing Global Green USA, said that state law limits non-discretionary review to matters concerning health and safety, not design.

“We believe this contradicts state law,” she said.

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.

Herb Mendelsohn, the vice president of PermaCity Solar, estimates that he spent 100 hours trying to get a permit for a project at 20th Street and Broadway. He said that some buildings that have solar panels might not qualify under the new ordinance.

“Your own parking garage might not pass,” he said.

City officials pointed out that the subsection states that panels be located in the “least visible” location and does not require that they be invisible.

“There is nothing in this ordinance that says thou shall not be seen, solar panels,” Councilman Richard Bloom said.

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

“I have actually driven around and looked and seen buildings and I don’t see we have a real problem with the visibility of solar panels from streets, even under the present criteria,” she said.

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