San Marino Defends 'High' Solar Panel Fees

The Sierra Club called the city's fees the third highest in L.A. County

By Justin Chapman, San Marino Patch, 6/28/2011

The city of San Marino defended the fees it assesses to install residential solar panels, which a Sierra Club survey found were the third-highest in Los Angeles County.
Following a , Dave Saldaña, the Director of the San Marino Planning and Building Department, told Patch on Tuesday that the fees had not changed in 15 to 20 years. 
"The fees are set by a rate table that was adopted by the City Council," Saldaña said. He added that the city has not lowered its fees, even though the Sierra Club has been sending him emails for more than a year with the goal of encouraging San Marino and other cities to lower permit fees to provide more of an incentive to residents and business owners to install solar panels.
"The reason we have not lowered our rates is because for many, many years we have been basing our fees on individual project evaluations," he said. "When someone wants a building permit from City Hall, we send out a permit technician to take a look at the proposed project and collect a fee. We have a table that tells us that an evaluation of x number of dollars will cost this amount of fees. The fees are proportionate to the value of the project."
"High fees can discourage businesses and residences from making good, long-term, high-yield investments in solar power," the Sierra Club report noted.
Saldaña explained that he believes one reason why San Marino has higher permit fees than other cities is that San Marino also requires a fire marshal to be part of the process of inspecting solar panel projects.
"The reason for that is to ensure that the panels are installed in a manner so they won't suppress access for fire suppression purposes," he said. "A certain amount of any roof needs to be clear in case there's a fire and a firefighter has to axe in the roof. There is a need for the Fire Department to be involved to make sure there is adequate space on a roof, as opposed to solar panels covering an entire roof. That separates San Marino from other cities, because I don't think other cities include that as part of the fees. Therefore we don't feel it would be appropriate to lower the fees."
That raises the question of where the money goes. The Sierra Club report listed San Marino's average residential permit fee at $1,088, and the city's average commercial permit fee at $13,081. Saldaña said that the fees collected by the city offset the city's costs.
"The money the city receives is for cost recovery expenses on each of these requests, not only for the inspections that would be required but also the city's administrative costs," he said.
The same evaluation process applies to commercial permits as residential, except maybe more so because there are a greater number of people in a commercial  building, Saldaña continued.
"There's going be more time spent so the inspection will take longer as well," he said about commercial installations. "You're going to have a higher cost evaluation. Proportionally it should be an increased fee."