By Jorge Casuso
July 30, 2009 – Despite worries that aesthetics could trump efficiency, the City Council Tuesday passed a law that makes it easier to install solar panels on commercial and multi-family buildings in Santa Monica.
The ordinance allows solar energy systems that “meet objective development standards” to be approved without a public hearing and also allows them to encroach into setback areas and extend above current height limits.
“What this does is that it streamlines and removes many of the codes,” said Mayor Ken Genser, adding that he “hopes (the process) will go much more quickly.”
The 4 to 1 vote (Council members Kevin McKeown and Bobby Shriver were absent) came after more than a dozen solar advocates worried that one of the provisions in the new law would discourage installing solar panels.
The provision requires that the panels “be installed in the location that is the least visible from abutting streets directly facing the subject property” unless it significantly decreases performance or significantly increases costs, the ordinance states.
Council member Gleam Davis, who cast the lone dissenting vote, agreed with the solar advocates, many of them members of Global Green, a Santa Monica-based environmental non-profit.
“I’m inclined to have a real philosophical problem” with the provision, Davis said. “I don’t see that we have a real problem with the visibility of solar panels from the street.
“The message that we’re sending may be solar is ugly,” Davis said. “I think maybe we’re trying to solve a problem that isn’t existing.”
But the council majority had no problem with the provision and approved a motion that relates the ordinance to the City’s goal to reduce greenhouse gases, recognizes new technology and analyzes the success of the new law.
The ordinance -- which excludes single-family homes -- sets specific height limits and sets limitations on installation in the required side and rear yard setbacks.
The ordinance also modifies four sections of the Zoning Ordinance that adversely affect installation of solar energy systems.
“The proposed Zoning Ordinance amendment establishes a streamlined, ministerial process for solar installations,” staff wrote in its report.
“The standards are consistent with current installation practices, such that the vast majority of solar energy system applications would comply and require no further review.”
Installations that meet the standards are exempt from discretionary ARB review.