“Human ping-pong balls”: Solar home contractor sues LA County over permitting process

California is requiring homes built after 2020 be solar-powered, but a lawsuit by ABC Solar alleges that LA County and Rolling Hills Estate are violating the state's solar act
By Natalie Hoberman |
Research by Haru Coryne
May 28, 2019 05:00PM

Founder of ABC Solar Bradley Bartz and City of Rolling Hills Estates Mayor Judy Mitchell

Founder of ABC Solar Bradley Bartz and City of Rolling Hills Estates Mayor Judy Mitchell

When California became the first state to require all new homes built after 2020 run on solar power, the law was expected to bring more scrutiny to every facet of the industry. That would include how companies comply with — and how cities process — the necessary permits.

In what may be a preview of things to come, Torrance-based ABC Solar is suing the city of Rolling Hills Estates and Los Angeles County for allegedly violating a state law that regulates the solar panel permitting process. At the center of the complaint is a property that borders two cities, where different permitting laws apply.

ABC Solar claims the city and the county are in violation of a provision in the California Solar Rights Act, which says that cities should have an “expedited, streamlined permitting process for small residential rooftop solar energy systems.”

In the suit, filed in L.A. County Superior Court this month, ABC Solar claims the current permitting process for installing solar panels calls “for applicants to be treated as human ping-pong balls bouncing between city and county offices.” The lawsuit focuses on two solar panel projects in Rolling Hills Estates.

In January, ABC Solar installed a system at a 4,200-square-foot home at 4927 Rolling Meadows Road. It claims the permitting process was “unnecessarily burdensome and expensive,” because the company had to make numerous personal visits to both the city and county offices. There was also little opportunity to file electronically, which added more time to the process.

In March, ABC Solar was hired to install panels in a smaller home at 29336 Indian Valley Road, where the cities of Ranchos Palos Verdes and Rolling Hills Estates meet.

After several calls to the office of Rolling Hills Estates, ABC Solar was told the firm would have to acquire permits with the City of Ranchos Palos Verdes because that’s where the home’s mailbox is located, the suit claims. That’s despite the fact that the home’s address is within the limits of Rolling Hills Estates, a city that outsources its building and electrical permits to the county.

Bradley Bartz, founder of ABC Solar, said Rolling Hills Estates told him it had revoked his permits in March, based on the county’s assessment of the plans. He started construction work anyway, thinking the situation would be resolved and eventually the permits would be approved, he said. But on May 17, the city fined him twice the permit fees of nearly $500, and said it would impose the “highest level of scrutiny” at the project site for doing work without the necessary city approvals, according to documents obtained by The Real Deal.

Bartz’s attorney, Jeff Lewis, thinks the city imposed “punitive permit fees” for filing the lawsuit.

The county has a “history of hazing my company because I’m the guy that stands up and says their rules are out of compliance,” Bartz said. “This time, I decided that it was time to stop it.”

City Attorney Don Davis said many of the allegations in the complaint filed “appear to be based on a misunderstanding of the Solar Rights Act.” In a written statement, he added that ABC Solar’s application for the permits were given many correction notices, which the company never fixed.

A spokesperson for the county said the county does not comment on pending litigation, but that it “has implemented an expedited solar permitting program that complies with the Solar Rights Act.”