City socks it to solar users

Cost of commercial permit among highest in county

A new report by the Sierra Club ranks Mountain View among the most expensive Bay Area cities for businesses that want to install solar panels, spurring a review of solar permit fees by city staff.

Of all the cities in San Mateo, Santa Clara and Alameda counties, Mountain View charged the second highest fee -- $2,200 -- to permit the sort of solar system a small business would use, typically a roof-mounted eight kilowatt system valued at $74,000.

The 52-city survey found that the average fee for that system was $680. A handful of cities are not charging any permit fees to businesses that want to go solar, including Los Altos Hills, Belmont and Foster City.

Mountain View has "a lot of room for improvement," said Kurt Newick, a solar panel installer who conducted the survey as a member of the Sierra Club. "They are charging way too much money."

"I personally don't think solar should get a free pass," said Bruce Karney, a local solar expert. "The cities that have waved the solar fee, like Foster City, I think that is noble of them but that means other permitted projects are picking up the cost for solar."

Newick said the high costs "absolutely" are a barrier for a small business considering solar, especially in a slow economy where every dollar counts. But David Basinger, acting building official, says he's not aware of any complaints about the cost.

Mountain View's fees are also well above average for medium and high powered commercial systems, Newick reports. A 49 kilowatt system valued at $475,000 would cost $5,330 in permit fees, and a 131 kilowatt system valued at $1.2 million would cost $17,100 in city fees. The averages are $2,062 and $4,631, respectively.

Basinger said Mountain View is reviewing its fees in response to the survey.

"We are aware of the issue and we are going to do something about it," Basinger said.

Mountain View lowered its fees for residential permits several years ago after a similar report by Newick. The city now charges a flat $152 fee to homeowners to inspect and permit solar panel installations on homes.

Despite the higher price tag, it doesn't take more time to permit a commercial system over a residential system, Newick said.

Basinger doesn't expect a loss of permit fees will significantly impact revenues for the building department. The city has only permitted a dozen solar projects for business use over the past few years, he said, though Google's is one of the largest ever built.


Like this comment
Posted by Doug Pearson
a resident of Blossom Valley
on May 1, 2009 at 8:31 pm

Like taxes, fees are a way for the city to pay for the services it provides to its citizens. A key difference is that fees are pretty directly related to the service they pay for and, in my opinion, the cumulative fee income should be enough to cover the cost of the service with a bit left over for the city's general fund.

The city has already made an exception for residential solar panels and I'm glad they did, even though I am unlikely to take advantage of it myself. I am even willing to have the Council reduce the fees for commercial and industrial solar panel installations. But I hope that, overall, they are still taking in enough fees to cover their services and if not, they should consider raising the cost of other fees.

Like this comment
Posted by O rule
a resident of Castro City
on May 3, 2009 at 11:58 am

Fees suck wallets dry! Local Gov't is out of whack. What kind of system is this in which one discharges blood, sweat and tears to come up with 20% down for a home and then gets knocked up with fees left and right for every little issue that pertains to the overpriced piece of property purchased. What's property tax for? 1.1% on a million is over 11k annually. Renting would be cheaper.

Point of owning is to have freedoms, rights and privileges within reason. I wouldn't want my neighbor putting in a cell tower or a giant windmill in their backyard but I don't think its correct to go through the expensive process of, 1) getting permission to cut my own fast-growing tree down, 2) perform a solar install or 3) upgrading my water heater, shower and tub. Basic permits should be free. Elaborate and complex permission applications, should cost within reason.

What would be really GREAT is to implement a county and/or state-wide fee relaxation or fee waived policy for solar installations by American owned companies. Say, job growth!
In addition, what services do these fees provide? When I ask my contractor friends of Mountain View, I don't hear many positive comments regarding city services. The city has been quietly practicing permission creep and fee encroachment upon homeowners for years and it needs to stop now. Enough with the greed.

Like this comment
Posted by Mr. Ngo
a resident of Sylvan Park
on Mar 8, 2013 at 12:01 pm

I own property in this fine City. Want to convert to green. Instead, Mt. View City officials are using their authority all over the city to find any violations to raise cash for their strapped departments. Really hassled. What happened to government being there to help people!!!!!!

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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