The structures are being described as a "giant dark billboard," "a huge black mass," and a "giant spaceship hovering over our property."
They are solar panels, installed by the Palo Alto school district this summer on several campuses. Neighbors say they were never informed or asked for their input about the placement of the panels, despite district administrators' and school board members' urging that staff do so months ago. The residents, as well as the director of Bing Nursery School, turned out to Tuesday's Board of Education meeting to demand the panels be moved elsewhere.
"It's like standing under aluminum bleachers at a football stadium," said Michael Ostacher, who lives next to Nixon Elementary School. "My backyard, frankly, is ruined by them."
Ostacher and the owners of two other homes on Mears Court, adjacent to Nixon, said they first became aware of the panels when they awoke to the noise of construction starting on the project in June. They then urged the district to pause work to find a solution, but construction continued.
"Had the staff contacted us, they would have seen that the then-proposed massive structure would loom as much as 24 feet above us, blocking much of our sunlight, ruining our view, jeopardizing landscaping and likely decreasing the value of our homes significantly," said Arthur Bienenstock, who lives next to Nixon in a Stanford University faculty home. "It seems that no one associated with the project planning had carefully examined the site to determine its impact on us — a shocking lack of due diligence."
Jennifer Winters, the director of Bing, said no one from the district reached out to the school until early June, the week before construction started on the panels at Escondido. In a brief phone call, Sustainability Program Manager Rebecca Navarro "did not solicit any feedback or engagement from us," Winters wrote in an email to the Weekly after the board meeting.
She described the panels as intrusive, negatively impacting the schools' outdoor environment — and by proxy the students themselves. Winters said the district's sustainability office did not respond to her offer to visit the campus to see the impact of the panels. They met in person for the first time the week before the board meeting, Winters said.
The district held two public meetings in February on the solar panels, a districtwide project that is estimated to save Palo Alto Unified nearly $600,000 over 25 years. With these savings, there are no upfront costs to the district, as over 25 years the solar agreement will cost less than Palo Alto Unified is currently paying for electricity, according to the district.
The community meetings were admittedly not well attended: only one community member attended the first and about three were at the second meeting, Sustainability Navarro told the board. She said she reached out to school leadership and parent groups and asked administrators to recommend other groups to talk to on an "as-named basis." Nixon Principal Mary Pat O'Connell requested the district reach out to the school's neighbors.
Navarro told the board that she made two failed attempts to contact the Stanford Campus Residential Leaseholders to share information with Nixon's neighbors. Her effort to reach out to Bing through the administration of Escondido Elementary School, which lies adjacent to the preschool, similarly did not succeed. Navarro said she then contacted Bing herself, which Associate Director Beth Wise confirmed, but said it was "right before the construction began." Navarro then visited Bing, Wise said, but the project proceeded as planned.
This is not the first flare-up over solar panels in Palo Alto Unified in recent months. The district moved the proposed location of panels at Palo Alto High School this spring after concern from residents that they would block the historic Tower Building, voicing similar criticisms about lack of outreach.
Members of the city's Parks and Recreation Commission are also concerned that solar panels were installed at JLS Middle School without first seeking public input, taking away space from a half-acre recreational field.
Several board members apologized on Tuesday and asked staff to work with the residents to find a solution.
"It's incumbent on us to see what we can do and to evaluate the feasibility of different alternatives," said President Ken Dauber.
Board member Terry Godfrey also asked that staff revisit all of the solar panel installations to engage with any other potentially impacted residents.
Several speakers lauded the district's commitment to solar, noting the environmental, financial and educational benefits. Once fully up and running, the panels will offset the equivalent of carbon emissions from 211 average homes in Palo Alto annually, according to the district. The district is also working with Palo Alto Utilities to develop curriculum related to the solar panels that will be available to all teachers and students, from kindergarten through high school.