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Are Homeowners Entitled to Sunlight?


Light casting shadows on a wall. Text asking, do you have a right to sunlight?

Most conversations about sunlight and homes happen during the buying process, when prospective residents wonder if their house is north or south-facing, and what that might mean in regards to natural light. Or, with increasing frequency, the sun factors in when it comes to people wanting to put solar panels on their roofs to move closer to energy independence.


Either way, when we think about the housing crisis and the need to build more homes, we may not necessarily be thinking about what that means for access to sunlight in existing homes, and what — if any — right homeowners have to sunlight. Are there legal rights, or even moral obligations, to ensure that as we develop new and much-needed homes, we ensure people have access to the sun?


Health Benefits & Energy Independence

Imagine that you have lived in your home for a handful of years. On sunny Sundays in the summer, you like to barbecue in the backyard as your kids play in their treehouse. Now, imagine that new construction next door builds a structure high enough to block out all the sun you once used to enjoy, affecting the natural light your home gets. Not only does this affect your well-being, it also potentially brings down your current property value — money you were banking on for your retirement.


On the other hand, imagine you’re a young family trying to buy a house, but with the housing crisis and skyrocketing prices, you’re cost-burdened and concerned with how you will afford the mortgage and other necessities. Neither of these situations is ideal, and both are very much realities in our community. This is why conversations like these, such as weighing how we will grow thoughtfully while maintaining our quality of life, are so important.


Upzoning, or changing zoning codes to permit multi-family development in single-family neighborhoods, is often discussed as a solution to the shortage of affordable homes. Though many people still want the typical single-family home, allowing duplexes and even six-plexes within single-family zones helps make use of available land. However, if the new multi-family homes involve building up (which it often does), it can impact the surrounding homes, blocking sunlight and even views.


When you compare maintaining existing natural light to needing a home, sunlight might almost seem like a luxury. But the fact is that light is a vital part of the spaces in which we live. Natural light is a major consideration for buyers when purchasing a house. Furthermore, it is well documented that natural light provides mental and physical health benefits, such as vitamin D, improved sleep due to circadian rhythm, and a reduction in certain types of depression, among other health benefits.


Solar access is also becoming increasingly important in light of climate change, with people opting for cleaner sources of energy, such as solar panels. For homeowners who took on the expense of installing a solar energy system and expected to see a reduction in their energy bill, it would be frustrating to see that expense not pay off due to an unforeseen restriction in sunlight. According to an article in Forbes, “Without sunlight, a system reliant on solar energy cannot produce power. This can pose a problem for consumers in areas with less-than-ideal levels of sun exposure or poor weather.”


The Right to Sunlight?

There are not many official laws around the right to sunlight, and the regulations that exist tend to pertain to solar panels rather than quality of living. In “Solar Rights,” an article by Sara C. Bronin in the Boston University Law Review states:


In the United States, attempts to assign solar rights have fallen short. A quarter century ago, numerous American legal scholars debated this deficiency. They agreed that this country lacked a coherent legal framework for the treatment of solar rights, especially given the emergence of solar collector technology that could transform solar energy into thermal, chemical, or electrical energy. These scholars proposed several legal regimes that they believed would clarify solar rights and facilitate increased solar collector use.


Very little has changed since this debate about solar rights began. Although some jurisdictions have experimented with scholars’ suggestions, reforms have not been comprehensive, and solar rights are guaranteed in very few places.


While sometimes “the right to light” as it relates to natural light in your home is granted through the courts, it’s very rare. Usually, securing the right through a legal avenue would be achieved through the Prescription Act of 1832, which requires proof that the light was enjoyed uninterrupted for 20 years. The National Housing Acts of 1937 and 1949 also mention access to light, but as it relates to a “slum or blighted area” that is dominated by dilapidated buildings that are overcrowded, lack ventilation and light (among other things), and are a health or safety risk.


In some places, such as San Diego, the County Code promises unobstructed access to sunlight and even gives specifications as far as the sunlight’s area and the sun’s degree. However, in Bellingham, the protection of sunlight is vague and generally operates under the assumption that the right to sunlight would be granted by the nature of the zoning codes. For example, here are two of the most relevant examples of sunlight protection references in the Bellingham Municipal Code:


City of Bellingham Municipal Code 20.10.036 B.7.b.ii. (2) (Accessory Dwelling Units)

(2) Minimal disruption of solar access to outdoor recreation or garden space on abutting property compared to what may otherwise occur with the application of standard development regulations.


City of Bellingham Municipal Code 20.26.020 G.2. (When requesting a variance from height limitations with a "Conditional Use")

a. Purpose. To ensure that buildings exceeding the height limitation imposed by the standard building regulations of Chapter 20.32 BMC do so in a manner which will be safe, compatible with the general character of the neighborhood, and will not result in excessive bulk, intrusiveness, or a continuous wall of buildings whereby view or sunlight is impeded.


In Bellingham and beyond, much of the legal protection (both existing, new, and pending) tends to relate to solar panels. Though some neighborhoods and Homeowners Associations push back against them for aesthetic reasons, states including California and Arizona have passed legislation to protect the right of solar panel installation, stating that benefits like reduced emissions outweigh the negatives.


Infill Development & Natural Light

With the climate crisis worsening and energy bills rising, protecting the right that homeowners have to install solar panels in favor of cleaner energy and energy independence is important, but so too is the fact that natural light is beneficial for our health and well-being. Studies have found those living in higher latitudes are at higher risk for hypertension and cardiovascular disease, multiple sclerosis, and diabetes. It’s no wonder homeowners in the Pacific Northwest want to protect their home’s access to natural light, especially when light is limited in the fall, winter, and much of spring.


However, access to affordable housing is critically important. To put it in perspective, to accommodate projected population growth, Bellingham may need to build 825 new homes a year (compared to the 644 homes per year that were built between 2016 and 2021. Infill efforts to accommodate this growth will result in building taller structures within existing residential neighborhoods which will inevitably limit the natural light that surrounding homes enjoy.


Whatcom County and the City of Bellingham are currently in the process of Comprehensive Planning, which is meant to give a 20-year outlook to thoughtfully manage the growth of our community. This is the time to consider questions like, Do existing homeowners have the right to protect their sunlight? If so, where and how will we build new housing to accommodate the growing population?


The good news is that you can make your voice and opinions heard. Sign up to stay informed about updates to the Comprehensive Plan. Notice of public hearings will be published in local papers at least ten days before they take place. You can also follow Housing for Bellingham on LinkedIn, Instagram and Facebook where we list the Whatcom County and the City of Bellingham Council meetings related to planning and development.


ABOUT — Housing for Bellingham is a community resource that works to explain the fundamental processes and terminology associated with housing related decisions in effort to inform the public. When the people understand land use planning processes and terminology, everyone can make more informed decisions about housing and land use policies in their communities.

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WHAT CAN YOU DO TO HELP?

Contact your Bellingham City Council representative and tell them you support a proactive plan for sustainable growth.

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