Easements: Solar Access Protection Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

Easements: Solar Access Protection Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

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Easements: Solar Access Protection Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

At tropical latitudes the sun is directly overhead the majority of the time, therefore, solar access is guaranteed without regulation. However, in the United States, solar access is influenced by many factors including; latitude, time of day, season, and angle of the sun. Furthermore, shade and shadows due to vegetation and structure greatly diminish the productive capacity of solar collection. Unfortunately, the right to unhindered solar access does not accompany land ownership rights in the United States. Federal and state governments encourage uses of alternative energy sources by appropriating funds for research and development of alternative energy technologies and through tax credits. Laws and/or regulations that guarantee landowner rights to solar access are critical for continued application of solar collection. Many states have introduced legislation to protect solar access rights, in effect removing barriers for solar energy utilization. Without legal safeguards, time and monetary investments in solar collection are fruitless and unwise. Although protected in ancient Greece, it was not until the 1970s and the OPEC oil embargo that U.S. courts and lawmakers began to create legal protection for landowners right to solar access. Consequently, twenty-four states enacted legislation to protect solar access, largely by recognizing the validity of solar access easements (Bradbrook 1988). This paper will attempt to explain easements and their historical context in terms of solar access rights. Additionally, we will explore the future of solar access regulation and law in terms of what needs to be done to create successful legislation that guarantees solar access for all.

Balancing is a key aspect of legal challenges to solar access. This term refers to the balance between the rights of one landowner to use the sun as a source of energy versus the rights of neighboring landowners to fully exercise their private property rights including economic gain as a result of using their land (Charter 1983). Easements are collectively viewed as a mechanism of solar access protection that successfully weighs political, economic and legal concerns (Beaumont and Imperati1984). Easements can be complex especially when dealing with property rights. To simplify our discussion we will consider easements to be a property right transfer, agreed upon in a written covenant that guarantees one landowner a limited right to access a benefit from another’s land.

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Traditional common law dictates a neighbor does not have the right to use their land in a way that causes harm to adjacent landowners (Charter 1983). English common law guaranteed solar access through a prescriptive easement entitled the Doctrine of Ancient Lights. If a landowner had achieved the benefits of light flowing across their property in a continuous, unhindered manner for a specific period of time, they held a prescriptive easement prohibiting the obstruction of this solar access. In 1959 the Doctrine was codified into modern English law as the Rights of Light Act and consequently a timeframe of 27 years of uninterrupted sun access was established as a baseline for easement claims (Beaumont and Imperati 1984). Although initially accepted in the United States, prescription easement were discounted due to the courts view of easements as contrary to the beliefs and ideals of a free and developing nation and excessively constricting of private landowner rights (Charter 1983). Solar access was commonly viewed in terms of aesthetics; therefore, courts saw no reason to limit or restrict the rights of landowners or to impede the free and rapid flow of development. However, the case of Prah v. Maretti in the Wisconsin Supreme Court in 1970, forced lawmakers, scholars and legal experts to rethink the justification of previous cases and to dissect the foundation of solar access law.

Prah v. Maretti was heard in an era of an impending fossil fuel crisis. Alternative energy was gaining momentum as a source of reliable, clean and cheap energy. The judicial and political mindset did not fervently back development nor were limits to personal liberties viewed as beyond the scope of judicial review. Prah had sought damages based upon the construction of a dwelling by Maretti that interfered with the effectiveness of a solar array operated by Prah. Maretti reneged on both the development associations approved design and a verbal agreement with Prah to not hinder his new neighbors solar access. The Court invoked nuisance law to rule in favor of Prah, stating that the creation of a solar block violated one’s interest and use in their land. The majority holding found that the newfound ability to harness solar energy and the impetus behind rapid and easy development no longer persisted in American society. Additionally, the Court found that common law and its adaptive nature allow for the law to balance the good of the public versus the good of the individual landowner. However, for several reasons easements are not a panacea for solar access law, rather, a starting point.

Prescriptive easements are not sufficient to guarantee solar access rights. Easements are predicated on a period of time of uninterrupted flow of light; therefore, spite fences and other intentional blockings can occur prior to the successful obtainment of prescriptive rights. Another issue surrounding the vitality of easements is their inherent ambiguity and lack of consistent means of evaluation and measurement. Vertical development, building and tree density and sprawl pose problems for solar access protection through easements (Hayes 1979). Oddly, sprawl is another obstacle for easements. Obviously, sprawl and the expansion of development represents a constant threat to the acceptance and flow of sunlight. Consequently, those in search of solar access can unintentionally spur on sprawl by searching out areas where sunlight is sufficient in duration to fuel both passive and active solar systems. Therefore, prudent solar access security lies in the realm of legislative acts and zoning regulation.

Disparate levels of development throughout different regions of our country underscore the necessity for local level regulation for several reasons. Regulations must suit public desire for solar potential utilization and recognize and consider structural shortcomings throughout the landscape to prevent political, economical and social backlash. Hayes (1979) outlines nine attributes of good solar access law as follows: laws and regulations should protect appropriate amounts of access, provide equal allocation of costs and benefits, be compatible with other laws and with the physical environment, give adequate notice, be politically acceptable, be reasonably flexible, compensate for cancelled access, be simple, implementable and infinite, and laws should protect future access. Solar access regulation should be a well thought, meaningful, balanced and local process to ensure solar use protection for all who want it.

In the case of solar access, easements can ensure continual access to the sun, therefore, allowing an energetic benefit to be accrued. However, for a multitude of reasons easements provide insufficient solar protection. Therefore, both laws and zoning statutes are needed to guarantee solar access both today and into the future.

Literature Cited

Beaumont, M.S., and K. Beaumont Imperati. 1984. Solar Access as a Property Right: Oregon and New Mexico. Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. Cambridge, MA.

Bradbrook, A.J. 1988. Future directions in solar access protection. Environmental Law 19:167-208.

Charter, J.M. 1983. Wisconsin Supreme Court sees the light: nuisance remedy granted for obstruction of solar access. Ecology Law Quarterly 11:47-73.

Hayes, G.B. 1979. Solar Access Law. Ballinger Publishing, Cambridge, MA.
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