Largo owner of solar-powered home fights neighbor’s trees, gains little ground u gas station

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LARGO — Last summer, Mike Zwalley put a $65,000 solar energy system on his roof. The system — a 30-gallon solar water heater and 44 black panels that convert sunlight into electricity — cut Zwalley’s electric bill from $300 to $400 per month to $10 to $20.

"We’re going to see more and more, and if it’s on your rooftop or in your back yard, you’re going to be concerned about your neighbor growing trees," said Scott Anders, director of the Energy Policy Initiatives Center in San Diego. "And growing trees is a good thing, right?"

More than 30 states offer some legal protections to people who own solar energy systems, but few have laws that would help Zwalley. California law protects solar panels from neighboring trees if the panels were there first. Wisconsin’s law is similar.

But Zwalley lives in Largo, and in the Sunshine State, property owners don’t have a right to sunlight. Florida law protects solar panels from homeowners associations (they can’t bar systems for aesthetic reasons) and from local laws. (If a city or a county’s tree removal policies are too expensive or stringent, legal experts say they can be lifted for someone who wants to cut trees for solar panels.)

Zwalley has gone to a few local state lawmakers, including Rep. Jim Frishe, R-St. Petersburg, and Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Seminole. Neither offered to sponsor a law like California’s or Wisconsin’s. Largo City Commissioner Curtis Holmes wanted to help, but his interest waned when City Attorney Alan Zimmet said a city law could prompt affected tree owners to sue Largo.

If Gibson’s trees grow to shade Zwalley’s solar panels, Zwalley could sue Gibson in civil court under nuisance laws. A similar argument was made by the owners of Miami Beach’s Eden Roc Hotel in the 1950s when the neighboring Fontainebleau Hotel proposed a 14-story addition. The Eden Roc sued, arguing the addition would shade its cabana, swimming pool and beach.

The Eden Roc lost, though. Florida courts have been reluctant to rule against property owners exercising legal rights on their property, according to Stetson law professor Paul Boudreaux. If Zwalley sued Gibson to force the trees’ removal, Boudreaux said, he’d face an "uphill battle."

Zwalley is not a man who dips his toes in the water when he picks up a hobby. He likes animals, and owns a lot of them: two blue-and-gold macaws (Mary Kate and Ashley), two sulcata tortoises (Arnold and Palmer), two leopard tortoises (Flash and Gordon), and seven cats.

So it’s not surprising his interest in solar power has turned into a crusade to change Florida law. The crusade hasn’t picked up much momentum, though. Unless the law changes, all Zwalley can do is hope his neighbor is right, and the trees won’t grow that tall.

The Gibson and Zwalley homes are comically close for neighbors locked in a disagreement. Their mailboxes sprout from the same post. Gibson rarely speaks with Zwalley, but he hopes the relationship improves, even though the trees will stay. "I’d rather be friends than enemies," Gibson said. "I do have to live next to the man."