California leads the nation in the number of solar projects undertaken, but more than half of the cities in Ventura County have been overcharging for commercial solar permit fees, according to the Sierra Club.

Camarillo tops the list at $10,346.

In the fall of 2010, area chapters of the environmental advocacy group the Sierra Club surveyed Ventura County cities about the permit fee to install a $1.2 million, 131-kilowatt photovoltaic (PV) rooftop system with 648 solar panels — an average-sized project for a large commercial building, such as a grocery store. Six of the 11 surveyed municipalities reported fees that were higher than the cost-recovery value, according to the Sierra Club’s solar permit fee calculation methods, and in violation of the California Solar Rights Act that requires minimum permit fees.

The Sierra Club’s figures show that the cost-recovery permit price (costs of permit reviews and inspections) should be less than $2,540 for such a project.

Kurt Newick, the leader of the survey, said that upon publishing the results, two of the three cities with the highest permit fees have dramatically decreased their fees. Santa Paula first quoted its fee at $14,240, but City Manager Jamie Fontes said it was simply a miscalculation, and a permit for such a project now costs $2,943. Ojai’s permit fee was $9,510, but interim City Manager John Baker also said it was a miscalculation.

“I know we haven’t charged anybody that figure,” said Baker. “We would have people screaming if that was the number.”

Baker said the cost for such a permit in Ojai is actually $2,235.

But the city of Camarillo’s fee of $10,346 for a project that size is apparently still intact.

“We think they might be a little high, but we are working on getting them adjusted to match Sierra cost estimates,” said Renee Meriaux, Camarillo’s deputy building official. “We certainly want to go solar in Camarillo, but we just don’t see them (permit applications) that often, residential either.”

According to Martha Aldana, a Camarillo permit technician, the last commercial PV system permit issued in Camarillo was in November of 2007 for installation at the Vons shopping center on 5275 Mission Oaks Blvd. The project cost was $221,000, and the permit fee was $1,904.

In 2008, Aldana said, the city had issued a permit fee increase, but exact figures were unavailable by this reporter’s deadline.

Clearly, said Newick, high permit fees discourage businesses from making investments in solar power. The Sierra Club has been conducting the same survey throughout California and has found that permit prices have been completely arbitrary throughout the state, from no charge at all to nearly $80,000.

“Each city does their own thing,” said Newick. “No really consistent ways. Lots of cities don’t understand good methodology, and these cities have been getting away with it. Until we do these reports and rank the cities, people don’t know they are outrageously high.”

The Sierra Club report analyzes fees, specific review tasks, project size, time needed for each task and billable hourly rates. Some of the excessive charges arise, said Newick, when cities charge fees based on project prices.

“It’s almost universal that the cities with high fees are charging based on the value of the project,” Newick said.

The cost of reviewing and inspecting a commercial solar project, however, does not vary linearly with system size, added Newick.

Though programs such as the California Solar Initiative, which provides incentives for solar system installations, exist throughout the state and nation, solar contractors are finding that city bureaucracy is making solar projects more expensive, lengthy and less desirable.

“It feels like a big vacuum right now. They see money in a bank account and they’re sucking it away,” said Greg Johanson, president of Solar Electrical Systems, who has currently spent $20,000 in permitting and planning costs for a $100,000, 70 kw project in Thousand Oaks.

“The sad thing is that it takes us 10 to 20 times the time to process the paperwork for a project than it does to actually do the work,” Johanson said.

The Sierra Club is an outdoor and environmental preservation group. For more information on the Sierra Club PV Permit Fee Campaign, visit www.solarpermitfees.org.