Sierra Club Official Criticizes City's Defense of High Solar Fees

Kurt Newick of the Sierra Club called San Marino's solar permit fees "blatant overcharging" and suggested the city may even be in violation of the spirit of state law

By Justin Chapman, San Marino Patch, 7/8/2011

After Director of the city's Planning and Building Department Dave Saldaña responded to a Sierra Club study showing San Marino's residential solar panel installation fees as the third highest in the county and its commercial fees above average, Sierra Club representative Kurt Newick found little common ground with Saldaña's explanations.  
See the Sierra Club study, which evaluated 42 Los Angeles County cities, as a PDF to the right.
Newick, Sierra Club's Global Warming and Energy Committee Chair of the Loma Prieta Chapter, still thinks San Marino is overcharging its residents and business owners who want to install solar projects and thus discouraging people from filing for permits to do so.
"The residential permit process for a 3 kilowatt solar installation runs an average of $512," the Sierra Club said in its report.
Los Angeles's rate is $248--down from $308 in 2009.
San Marino is ranked as having the third highest fee in the county at $1,088 (see table to the right), behind Irwindale and Lawndale.

Calculating Fees
Saldaña told Patch in the that despite the Sierra Club sending emails to San Marino to encourage the city to lower fees and provide more solar installation incentive for residents and businesses, San Marino has not lowered its fees because for more than 20 years they have based their fees on individual project evaluations, using a table that tells the permit technician who conducts the evaluation how much the fee should be.
Newick called the city's fees "blatant overcharging" of residents and business owners. He also accused the city of possibly violating state laws.
"Their fees are way too high," Newick said, referring to San Marino. "For residential evaluations it takes two to four hours. It should be a fixed fee to enable cost recovery for two to four hours of city staff time to do the inspection and permit review. Cities are starting to change because the value of a solar project does not correlate with the resources needed to permit a system."
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. The table method that San Marino uses to evaluate project fees may be better suited for other projects, Newick said.
"But for solar project evaluations, it is not right to base it on evaluation tables," said Newick. "It's basically violating the intent of state law, which requires minimum solar permit fees. It's also been shown in a court of law that it's invalid. Cities are not for-profit organizations. San Marino is in blatant violation of overcharging for installation fees."
One of Saldaña's claims that Newick agreed with is that commercial projects should have an increased fee, though Newick disagreed with how much that fee should be.
"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 told Patch in an earlier interview. "There's going to be more time spent so the inspection will take longer as well. You're going to have a higher cost evaluation. Proportionally it should be an increased fee."
Although Newick agreed that some commercial projects can be quite large, and so the city should charge more for a permit fee than a smaller residential project, he disagreed with Saldaña's argument that San Marino has higher permit fees than other cities because San Marino also requires a fire marshal to inspect solar panel projects for safety reasons such as ensuring adequate roof space is left in case a fire occurs in the future and the fire department needs to axe through the roof.
"That separates San Marino from other cities, because I don't think other cities include that as part of the fees," said Saldaña regarding the fire marshal. "Therefore we don't feel it would be appropriate to lower the fees."
Newick disagreed with this assessment. He said that's largely unnecessary because the city planners and permit technicians are adequately prepared to determine how much space is needed.
"All the fire departments in other jurisdictions charge by the hour," he said. "It's not based on the size of the project. San Marino's charging $13,081 on average, which is several times more than it needs to be for cost recovery."
He went on to say that the high fees are not because of the fire marshal's required presence.

San Marino Compared to Other Cities
"Every jurisdiction I have talked to has been very reasonable," Newick continued. "The fire people are actually computing the fees correctly, and they're not gouging on their fee schedules. They're just charging for their time, which is usually only a few hours. They review the plans independently of the planning department, and some will do inspections, some won't. It depends."
San Marino has not been one of those jurisdictions that has cooperated with the Sierra Club's request to reconsider their permitting processes and evaluation and installation fees.
"I contacted San Marino in 2009 and this year to try to convince them to lower their fees, and they didn't," said Newick. "I went to the city clerk and sent both letters I wrote to all the city council members, requesting that they review their current fee calculation process. I'm hoping one of them will step up to the plate and see that their solar fees be reviewed and revised to their appropriate level."
According to Newick, the appropriate level is whatever that city needs to recover their costs. 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 praised cities such as nearby Sierra Madre in the county and other areas of the state that have or are considering lowering their permit fees. Recently, a after stories in Patch and other sources about San Marino's and other city's high fees were published.

The Future of Solar Fees
"I think Sierra Madre looking at lowering their commercial rates is great," said Newick. "At some point in the next few years there's going to be a crossover into grid parody, where solar will be less expensive than traditional energy, in which case there will be a lot more people installing small and large solar systems."
For that to happen, however, Newick said that it's really crucial and even required that local jurisdictions compliment state and federal solar incentives by having reasonable permit processes and fees so they're not a bottleneck to getting solar systems installed in their cities.
"The city and an independent entity needs to scrutinize how long the evaluations are taking and how much time is supposedly needed right now to approve a permit in San Marino," said Newick. "Someone needs to take a closer look at that."
Newick also mentioned that there are other organizations looking to standardize guidelines, such as the LA Basin Chapter of the International Code Council, that will enable all cities in LA County to have a streamlined solar permit submittal process and lower their fees. Osama Younan, an inspector who works for the City of Los Angeles, is working on permit guidelines for all LA County 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. "That's really going to be the solution here."