Jeff Jardine

Oakdale homeowner handicapped by country club’s solar system?

Carl Porter moved into his home at the end of Stearns Road roughly 60 years ago. At the time, the private Oakdale Golf & Country Club was a nine-hole course well up the hill from the Stanislaus River.

To expand to 18 holes in the 1970s, the country club bought the land on two sides of Porter’s property, with the 13th green and 14th tee just feet away. It planted trees and shrubs to hide the course from Porter’s property and vice versa.

For decades, they peacefully coexisted as neighbors. But now, relations are strained.

What changed? In January, 1st Light Energy began tearing out the shrubbery and trees next to Porter’s home. The solar contractor also removed piles of brush and grass clippings from its land bordering the front of Porter’s 2.5 acres. Then it began installing a solar energy system, and a massive one at that. We’re not talking about a single-family home rooftop job producing just enough juice to cut a homeowner’s PG&E bill and perhaps recharge the Prius.

Completed, the 325-kilowatt system will consist of 1,080 solar panels on six steel-framed banks, two of which are nearly 500 feet long, along the front of Porter’s property. The other four are much closer to the Porter home. They’ll be about 13 feet tall.

The project reflects an array of potential conflicts or disagreements. It’s property owner vs. property owner, in this case a country club and the stereotype of elitism against the little guy, in this case a 74-year-old retiree and his family.

It’s about property use: the country club’s right to use its property in a beneficial way vs. another private property owner’s desire to protect views and possibly property values.

It involves conflicting opinions about what the homeowner was told regarding the size of the system and how close it would be to his home.

It’s solar vs. the traditional utility. Solar, no matter what PG&E spews and spins in its commercials, is the enemy. It cuts into profits, which is why the utility and irrigation districts are fighting to make solar cost-prohibitive for residential customers.

Mostly, it’s a prelude to more of the same elsewhere. More and more residents in rural areas can expect to see large commercial solar panel banks built within view of or bordering their properties. They’ll use as a shield the Solar Act of 1978, which was created to jump-start the then-fledgling solar industry but includes laws Stanislaus County Supervisor Bill O’Brien thinks need to be revisited after he viewed the project in Oakdale.

“It’s a nearly 40-year-old solar law on the books that needs to be updated,” O’Brien said. “I understand the golf course’s needs. And I feel horrible for the Porters. There are scapegoats in the Solar Act that it doesn’t protect.”

The solar panel system is entirely on golf course land but is owned initially by 1st Light, which upon completion and final inspection will sell the system to an investor. The country club pays nothing for installation. It will pay the investor for the electricity generated by the system, and at a much lower rate than what it now pays PG&E. The system will generate enough electricity to power the clubhouse, the irrigation pumps, the shop/maintenance barn, lighting and everything else the club requires.

“We pay about $130,000 a year for electricity,” General Manager Rick Schultz said. Buying solar power, he said, will save the members at least $30,000 the first year and hundreds of thousands of dollars over the 20-year life of the contract – even more if they can eventually own the system outright.

None of which matters to Porter, a quiet, humble man. He’s not a member of the country club. He’s simply a deeply entrenched homeowner whose land is being surrounded on two sides by giant banks of solar panels that he knew would be coming but never envisioned would be so big.

“They never told us a thing (about the size and scope of the project),” he said.

Justin Krum, owner of 1st Light, begs to differ. He said he sat down with Porter numerous times to explain what the project would entail and what he would do to ease the impacts on Porter’s property. What he couldn’t do from the onset was to tell Porter exactly how big the system would be and exactly where it would go until the engineers completed their work.

Because the fire department and PG&E require a 20-foot access lane, the solar panels couldn’t be like the ones at McHenry Avenue and Patterson Road. Those move to track the sun throughout the course of the day. The ones at the country club have to stay permanently affixed, which is why they will be so high and dominate the landscape.

Krum said he’s offered to provide more attractive, decorative fencing alongside Porter’s property so he won’t see the entire banks of panels next to the home, or even the chain-link needed to protect them.

“And I’ve offered to put in tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of landscaping,” he said. “I’d put the fence in right now. I even offered to put a solar system on their roof for almost nothing. I’ve got everything here to do that now, anyway.”

Likewise, Schultz said the country club worked with Krum to move the panel banks 15 feet farther away from Porter’s property line and offered to trade property in a land swap that would benefit the homeowner.

No thanks, said Porter, who retired after a long career working for PG&E. Conversations remained amicable, Krum said, until Porter turned to his nephew, Craig Porter, for advice.

Craig Porter said he is trying to protect his uncle’s interests, and that the project will devastate the property’s value. Krum and Schultz said they have been told by Craig Porter to deal only with him and not to contact Carl Porter directly. They said Craig Porter has mentioned a lawsuit.

“My uncle has high blood pressure,” Craig Porter said. “You can see he’s been lied to. I got involved to help him understand what the processes were. When they pile-drove the posts, they assured him it wouldn’t shake his house. But he had to leave the house for a whole day.”

Craig Porter accuses the county of rubber-stamping the project, requiring no environmental study, and says the solar panels will diminish the value of his uncle and aunt’s property.

“I realize they’re within the law – I understand the law part,” Craig Porter said. “But what about decency?”

Angela Freitas, the county’s planning and community development director, said 1st Light met all permit requirements as prescribed by the Solar Act, including the minimum 5-foot setbacks, access and other dictums. It requires no environmental study.

Ultimately, it comes down to this: The country club is within its rights to build the system, O’Brien said. The homeowner, Carl Porter, is within his rights to hate it.

But O’Brien said he cautioned the Porters about pushing back too hard against something that is going to happen regardless.

“It’s devastating to the homeowner,” he said. “But (Krum) doesn’t have to put up a nice-looking fence or landscaping. There could be civil issues that the county just isn’t going to weigh in on. It’s just a bad situation.”