2011-11-10 "High Permit Fees Hinder Businesses' Switch to Solar" by Rachel Raskin-Zrihen from "Vallejo Times-Herald"
Since lowering many of its permit fees last month, Vallejo, Calif.'s residential solar panel fees are now in the normal range, but the same cannot be said on the commercial side, a Sierra Club spokesman said this week.
And this may be keeping some business owners and others from going solar, he said.
A new Sierra Club study shows Vallejo's commercial solar permit fee is more than $20,000, by far the county's highest. Dixon is next, with a $14,500 fee. Vacaville's $400 fee is the county's least expensive, the study shows.
Having these fees so far outside the norm for the area and exceeding by so much what's needed to recover costs, could be discouraging Vallejo business owners from going with the "greener" energy alternative, Sierra Club Redwood and Loma Prieta Chapters spokesman Kurt Newick said.
Newick said he's conducted hundreds of comparative studies on the issue as part of a campaign to encourage cities to lower these fees and make it easier for people to opt for rooftop solar panel systems.
"Vallejo's commercial fees are eight to 10 times higher than they need to be," Newick said.
The problem, Newick said, is that the city calculates the permit fee based on the project's cost, like permit fees are, but this violates two state laws meant to encourage solar installations.
"There is no connection between what it costs to inspect a project like this and the cost of the project," he said.
Assistant City Manager Craig Whittom said officials are aware that the fees are too high and are examining the issue.
"We are looking at those," Whittom said. "We had a good outcome with our residential fees, and it has come to our attention that our commercial fees are not competitive with other cities. We're reviewing that and expect to get back to the council with proposed modifications to those fees."
That will likely be within the next couple of months, he said.
A 2006 Sierra Club study of residential solar permit fee study for all San Francisco Bay Area cities found four of Solano County's eight municipalities (including the county itself) were over-charging for residential permits, Newick said.
The most recent survey, conducted this month, reveals that 75 percent of Solano County cities, including Vallejo, have significantly lowered those fees since then. The fee in Vallejo was lowered from $671 to $394. Dixon is the only city in the county now over-charging -- and it's not by much, Newick said. The permit cost $500 in Dixon and should cost around $350, he said.
Vallejo Chamber of Commerce board president Michael Coan said the commercial fees would stop him from going solar.
"It kind of makes you lose the incentive to try and do it," Coan said. "If you want to encourage going green, having such a huge discrepancy won't help."
Last month, the survey team notified four municipalities with commercial solar project fees exceeding $5,000, that their fees were excessive and requested they review their calculation methods, Newick said. He said charging more for solar permits than the reasonable costs to administer them violates California Government Code Section 66014, which provides that fees associated with building inspections and building permits "shall not exceed the estimated reasonable cost of providing the service for which the fee is charged."
After getting that letter, Fairfield "promptly slashed their commercial (solar) permit fees," but it is the only city to do so so far.
The study's authors developed a free fee calculator spreadsheet for roof-mounted commercial solar systems to help municipalities determine cost recovery, Newick said. It is accessible at www.SolarPermitFees.org/ PVFeeCalcCommercial.xls.
Solar permits in Solano County today vs. 2006 -
Source: Sierra Club Redwood Chapter (Solano Group) & Loma Prieta Chapter, Times-Herald, Vallejo, Calif.
--Benicia $150, up from $125 * $1,538
--Dixon $500, up from $149 * $14,531
--Fairfield $221, up from $203 * $3,519, from $7,300
--Rio Vista $250, down from $783 * $11,311
--Solano County $352, down from $1,113 * $1,188, from $22,477 (2010)
--Suisun City $118, down from $282 * $463
--Vacaville $185, down from $404 * $400
--Vallejo $394, down from $671 * $20,696