Neighbors clash with school district over solar panels

SONOMA, Calif.

In an effort to save money, a North Bay School district installed solar panels at its schools. But it's where the district put the panels that has neighbors wondering why they didn't have a say in the project.

When Anne Phillips walks to get her mail she's reminded of what she used to see -- a "beautiful, beautiful" view. But now her view is rows and rows of 11-foot-tall solar panels.

"It's like aliens landed in the field and so they are keeping them there in this hideous cyclone fence," Phillips said.

The land is owned by the Sonoma Valley Unified School District. According to Phillips and her neighbors, the solar panels went up without warning and without their input.

"I feel violated; I feel like our whole neighborhood has been violated, it's changed so much of our neighborhood," Phillips said.

"First thing we did, we looked at every campus and we looked at those areas that we could put in solar," Sonoma Valley Unified School District Deputy Superintendent Justin Frese said.

Frese says there are a number of reasons the district put solar panels at its schools.

"Well, we're obviously looking to save funds, to be more green and a bit more energy conscious, as well as, model good stewardship to our students," Frese said.

Frese says the solar panel project will save the district $26 million over the next 25 years. But Phillips says the district's savings are the neighborhood's loss.

"We were not aware that this solar field was going to go in at all," Phillips said.

The school district claims there was notice given about the project and plenty of time to voice concerns at a public hearing held in January.

Dan Noyes: "So what notice was there for that meeting?"
Justin Frese: "Well, for all of our public meetings we post in several locations. We put ads in the paper."

The I-Team picked up the two editions of the Sonoma Index Tribune where the district placed the notices. The notices were there, but they were deep in the paper, in small print. They were published on Christmas Eve and New Years Eve. Neither notice says where the public hearing will be held.

"It's been a very public process and it's one where we, I really feel like we went out of our way to ask people to come to these meetings and give feedback and it's unfortunate that the neighbors right across the street in this particular project didn't realize that's what was going to be talked about," Frese said.

"Makes me sick to my stomach to look in that direction; I'm sorry, It's not pretty," Nanci Ligon said.

Ligon lives behind Adele Harrison Middle School.

"They make the rules, they tell us where they're going to put things and there's no regulatory commission or anybody telling them what to do and we can't complain," Ligon said.

The I-Team discovered that a school district does not need local permits to build on its property.

Dan Noyes: "What permits did you need for this? City, county?"
Justin Frese "No, there's a process to go. School districts use the Division of State Architects, we refer to as DSA."
Dan Noyes: "So it's the state?"
Justin Frese: "It's the state."

"Our responsibility is strictly for the structural safety of a building or in this case solar panels," DSA spokesperson Eric Lamoureux said.

Lamoureux says DSA can't control where the school district puts ground mounted solar panels unless there are safety concerns.

"We're not involved in sighting at all; we don't have jurisdiction that allows us to oversee sightings of a school construction project," Lamoureux said.

Neighbors are left to voice their concerns at school board meetings.

"I'm concerned about the soil," Phillips said.

"Tear out the panels, at least the front half of them," Lynette Radford said.

"Put them on the roof some place," Tim Simonson said.

One after another, telling the board how the solar panels affect their lives

"You're missing the point," Rick Phillips said.

"I don't think we're missing the point at all; I think that we're getting the point," School Board President Nicole Abate Ducarroz said. "Our first and foremost is looking at how we can educate our students and future leaders."

Ducarroz says it comes down to dollars and finding new ways to generate money. She says the school system will use the solar panels to power its own facilities and any left over power will be sold to PG&E.

"We're going to have to cut millions and millions of dollars from our budget; his money is going back into our general funds so that is going to help our budget," Abate Ducarroz said.

Ducarroz says the district plans on working with neighbors to find ways to mitigate their problems. One plan is to use landscaping to hide the panels.

"They have to come up with something, that something where we can get our view back," Phillips said.

Phillips says she doesn't want the solar panels covered up; she wants them lowered or moved. And she says the problem could have been avoided if neighbors were included in the planning process.

Dan Noyes: "You say you want to be good neighbors but you want to be good neighbors now. To me a good neighbor would have been someone who knocked on my door before January. 'Hey, here's what I'm thinking about doing, how do you feel about that?' That didn't happen."
Justin Frese: "Well, in hindsight, I think we would have done it differently."

After the I-Team started asking questions, the district agreed to lower the solar panels across from Phillip's house. She says she'll believe it when she sees it. A spokesperson for the solar industry was upset this story might put them in a bad light; she told the I-Team this is not the way most solar developers do business.

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