Public Comment

# Want to Preserve your Backyard Sunlight? Buy an Easement

Kevin Burke, Alamo
Friday November 03, 2017 - 07:00:00 PM

Toni Mester's recent oped ("Backyard Dwellings") laments new construction which threatens sunlight in backyards in Berkeley's R1 district. She uses this argument to object to new construction in R1. "The homeowners in the R-1A have very little security that they will be able to maintain their backyard sun, peace, and privacy," she writes. 

Fundamentally, the problem is that construction on neighboring lots can impact your lot; if your neighbor builds a tall structure, it may cast a shadow on your land for part of the day. I am happy to report that there's a solution to this problem that doesn't require any intervention from the Berkeley Zoning & Adjustments Board. 

Homeowners who wish to preserve sunlight in their backyards can purchase an easement from their neighbors. An easement is a legally binding document forbidding the neighbor from using their property in a certain way. For example, the easement may forbid construction higher than 18 feet, or within X feet of the property line. Buy an easement from your neighbor, and you can have all of the sunlight that you desire. The other great thing about an easement is it doesn't require any new legislation from the Berkeley ZAB; you can buy one today! 

Of course, you may not be able to meet your neighbor's price for an easement. In this case, your neighbor probably values the ability to build new housing more than you value your sunlight. Asking the ZAB to restrict the neighbor's ability to build, after this, is essentially the same as granting you a sunlight easement at below market rate. This reduces your neighbor's property value, since they're no longer able to sell that easement at the market rate, or build housing to the height allowed by the zoning code. Frankly, I think that's unfair to the neighbor, and rewards a lack of imagination on the homeowner's part, to imagine the types of structures that could be built on the land near them. 

There are many reasons neighbors might value new housing more than existing homeowners value sunlight. One is that it's really difficult for renters right now, and housing is really expensive. Statewide, one in three renters pays more than half their salary in rent. Since 2010, Alameda County has added 55,000 new jobs and only 15,000 new housing units. Those extra workers have increased competition for apartments, and rents; since 2014, the average price of an apartment in Berkeley has increased from $2321 to $3124. This high price means there's heavy demand for new housing. 

If you want your backyard sunlight, you can have it: buy an easement from your neighbor to stop them from obstructing your light. But given the high rents Berkeley's renters are willing to pay for housing, and the high demand for new construction, you better be willing to pay up.