Green Energy Advocates Lobby L.A. County to Reduce Solar Permit Fees

The county recently reduced its fees for residents who want to install solar panels on their homes — and it's considering doing the same thing for businesses

By Justin Chapman, Altadena Patch, 7/20/2011

Installing solar panels just got a little cheaper for residents of unincorporated Los Angeles County, thanks in part to recent lobbying efforts by the Sierra Club and other green energy advocates.
The county recently reduced its solar panel permit fees for residents — and it is now considering lowering its fees for businesses, according to officials with the Department of Public Works, the agency responsible for setting the permit rates.
Bob Spencer, a spokesperson for the county's Department of Public Works, told Patch in a phone interview that the county recently worked with the Sierra Club and other consultants to lower its residential fees from $1,144 to $370. That brings the fees below $512 — the average of a recent study of local solar fees conducted by the Sierra Club (attached to this article as a PDF file to the right).
Advocates have been arguing that state law requires solar permit fees to be minimal and standardized. Right now fees vary widely, and they believe that most local jurisdictions are overcharging residents and businesses, according to Kurt Newick, the Sierra Club's Global Warming and Energy Committee Chair of the Loma Prieta Chapter.
The Sierra Club has been lobbying cities and counties up and down the state for the past two years to lower their fees, and released its study showing that solar permit fees in cities across LA County and the county itself vary widely, ranging from $0 in some jurisdictions and up to tens of thousands of dollars in others.
The county itself is now below average for residential fees and just slightly higher than average for commercial fees.
"We had been thinking about reducing the fees around the time the Sierra Club did their survey," said Spencer. "We were already discussing fee reduction anyway because we think it's important for both the county and the state to encourage people to invest in these kinds of energy saving and green energy alternatives."
Spencer said the county looked at a combination of things when they reduced the residential fees.
"We were trying to recover our administrative costs for servicing the permits, and we've looked at reducing the processing time down from about eight weeks to possibly three weeks to review the permits when they come in," he said. "But our biggest concern was lowering the fees for permits for residents."
He added that the county is currently looking at reducing the commercial fees, but there is no official timeline yet and no final decision has been made.
"There's been no final decision on that yet on whether or not we can reduce commercial fees in unincorporated areas, and if we can, by how much," he said.
The county governs about 65 unincorporated communities, including Altadena and small pockets of San Gabriel Valley.
Not only is the county working on lowering rates in its unincorporated areas, but it is working with the Sierra Club, the LA Basin Chapter of the International Code Council and the City of Los Angeles to standardize permit guidelines to enable all cities in LA County to have a streamlined solar permit submittal process and make it easier to lower their fees.
"We're aware of those efforts and we have been working with them," said Spencer. "Our discussions in this entire area of making solar panels an alternative for everyone continue."
However, this is no easy task, he added.
"When you have the county and 88 cities, it's not an easy task to standardize these things across the board. You may find some cities that are reluctant to reduce their fees. It's difficult to get 89 agencies to all agree on the same thing. It's very comprehensive. But we're absolutely working with the Sierra Club and these other consultants to see if we can get that done."
Some nearby cities are far above average for both residential and commercial solar permit fees. , with a residential fee rate of $1,088, and a commercial rate of $13,081.
Altadena's neighbor to the east, Sierra Madre, is also above average with a residential rate of $515 and a commercial rate of $37,349. However, a  after Patch and other news outlets published stories about the high fees in San Marino in other cities.
Newick said cities such as San Marino are "blatantly overcharging" their residents and business owners and also accused them of possibly violating the intent of state law, which requires minimum solar permit fees.
Newick explained that the Sierra Club, in the online Excel program included in the study, specifically developed a permit fee calculation methodology that documents what a permit fee must be for cost recovery.
"But for solar project evaluations, it is not right to base it on evaluation tables," said Newick. "It's basically violating the spirit of state law. It's also been shown in a court of law that (using evaluation tables is) invalid. Cities are not for-profit organizations."
According to Newick, the appropriate solar fee level is whatever a city needs to recover its costs, and not a penny more. He said that $200 to $350 for residential projects and $300 to $3,000 for commercial projects would be appropriate, depending on the size of the project. He added that cities are starting to change because the value of a solar project does not correlate with the resources to permit a system, but it's a slow process.
For that process to happen, however, Newick said that it's really crucial that local jurisdictions complement state and federal solar incentives by having reasonable permit processes and fees, so there's not a bottleneck to getting solar systems installed in their cities.
"They're trying to standardize what these permits look like in order to get them done more accurately and to lower costs," said Newick, referring to those consultants who are trying to standardize permit guidelines across the county. "That's really going to be the solution here."