Some countries, like parts of the US, have had solar rights and solar access legislation for 40 years. But the government is still mulling on whether now is the right time to enact solar rights legislation to protect photovoltaic panel owners from overshading.
To harness the sun’s energy, a property owner must have access to sunlight and have the right to install a solar energy system. The 2016 National Renewable Energy Plan emphasises the government’s commitment to have 4.7 percent of all Malta’s energy needs met using solar power by 2020. The absence of solar rights laws has been described as a ‘handicap’ for further uptake of the government’s subsidy offer.
Energy Minister Joe Mizzi confirmed that the government still has no immediate plans to enact solar rights legislation even if “the situation is being evaluated to establish whether such laws could be possible in the context of existing property rights”.
To many who are concerned about the lack of environmental sensitivity of this administration, the minister’s comment sounds very much like kicking the can down the road. But for many environmental concerns are much more severe than the rights of some property developers whose primary interest is to knock down older houses to build high-rise blocks that prevent sunlight reaching the neighbouring area for long stretches of time during the day.
Access to sunlight means that one’s property can continue receiving sunlight across property lines without obstructions. Wherever solar access rights have been enshrined in law, efforts were made to balance the needs of individual solar energy system owners with other nearby property owners by developing solar access rights.
Legislation should limit the ability of covenants, conditions and restrictions typically enforced by homeowners’ associations to restrict solar installations. It should also prevent a property owner from allowing trees to shade existing solar energy systems installed on a neighbouring property, provided the trees were planted after the solar collecting device was installed.
The laws should provide for easements to be negotiated between neighbouring property owners with flexible conditions and terms including the potential compensation requirements if a neighbour interferes with access to sunlight. The validity of such easements should be protected by proper legislation.
The Planning Authority needs to take in consideration solar access rights of a neighbourhood when considering major property development projects. The authority must specify conditions in the zoning ordinance so that buildings are constructed far enough apart that they would be unlikely to shade neighbouring roofs. The applicability of changes to current building regulations needs to take into consideration the new versus existing constructions and the enforcement of rights.
Such a change in sensitivity to the urgent need for promoting environment-friendly policies will not come without political and legal consequences. The construction lobby will resent any new restrictions on building more high-rise blocks. Legal disputes are inevitable in the absence of well-defined solar rights provisions.
Malta lags behind many EU countries in the importance it gives to environmental issues. Let us be among the first in the EU to enact legislation giving citizens the right to enjoy and utilise sunlight.
This is a Times of Malta print editorial
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