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Solar News

Going Solar in Virginia Isn't All That Easy


Thanks to severe home improvement regulations from homeowners associations (HOAs), as well as lack of state-funded incentives, residents and business owners in Virginia are waging an uphill battle to go solar. The Washington Examiner reports that many homeowners associations in the county forbid the installation of solar panels and the state of Virginia does not offer financial assistance to residents looking to install solar energy systems.

"We've heard a lot of anecdotal evidence from residents that this is a big problem," said Fairfax Supervisor Penny Gross, chairwoman of the board's environmental committee, told the Washington Examiner. And Steve Gotschi, president of an installation company in Sterling told the paper: "It's not necessarily just Fairfax County, it's Northern Virginia." Gotschi says that the time-consuming local regulations have made solar business difficult, especially in communities subject to homeowners associations. "Residential bylaws always have the same one-liner, ‘No solar panels.' . . .They believe it ruins the home's aesthetic." Indeed, many HOAs across the nation are fighting solar panels on the grounds that they are not aesthetically pleasing in residential communities.

Examining Fairfax homeowners' association guidelines indeed supports the claim that some communities are trying to restrict solar panels: the same regulation repeatedly appears. "Solar panels are not permitted," reads the Vienna Station homeowners handbook. Slightly more lenient HOAs allow solar only if panels are installed flush with the roofline, an expensive requirement.  Northern Virginia residents have had little to no luck persuading their HOAs to reconsider covenants that prohibit the installation of solar panels.

The county has little power to force homeowners associations to change their regulations; however, residents believe the state could do more to encourage solar through legislation and cash incentives.  

The state did, in fact, enact legislation that could help homeowners. According to Progressive States Network, Virginia enacted SB 320 in 2008, which negates covenants that prohibit solar installations on private property. The bill was introduced by Senator Frank Wagner (R-Virginia Beach), and clearly states, according to the Richmond Sunlight, that "any restrictive covenant that restricts the installation or use of any solar energy collection device on real property in the Commonwealth is considered void and contrary to the public policy of the Commonwealth." Many residents believe that the SB 320 protects their rights to solar access and trumps any restrictive covenants by homeowners' associations.

Meanwhile, Virginia's northern neighbor, Maryland, has been offering a more generous support for solar energy systems. Maryland has provided a number of solar energy grants, providing homeowners thousands of dollars in addition to available federal incentives.

"In Maryland you have your state credits, you have your county credits, and I think some smaller jurisdictions have city credits. In Virginia we only get the 30 percent federal grant," Gotschi, the head of the installation company, stated to the Examiner. Virginia homeowners were reluctant to stake so much of their own cash knowing there were other options of credits and grants floating within reach. However, Virginia is going to need to reach further if they want to catch up with other states.

"We need to get over our solar issues here in Virginia," agreed Gross in the Examiner.

Meanwhile in California, residents are fighting their rights to go solar. one homeowner submitted an application to his HOA a month after he installed a passive solar garage door. He never thought he would be denied permission because his $100,000 modern solar door is energy-efficient and aesthetically pleasing, and the garage sits far back off the street.

His homeowner's association disagreed. The Ashley Woods West Owners Association denied his application, claiming that the garage door "is not consistent with the aesthetics of the community."

According to a Gold Country Media article, the homeowner believes the California Solar Rights Act of 1978 protects his right to use the solar door. The act establishes his right to solar access and limits the ability of HOAs to restrict solar installations. The legislation allows reasonable restrictions if the owner of the solar energy system can install an alternative system comparable in cost and efficiency. For example, a homeowners association can prohibit a solar installation of a solar panel that stretches above the roof if there's a similar model that would be less visible to the community.

In the homeowner's case however, there are no alternatives. He and his HOA board members have discussed possible solutions, and the Board President is hoping for a solution.

"We're trying to work out a resolution that makes it right for everybody," the board president reported to Gold Country Media.

Recently, the homeowner surveyed eleven of his neighbors to see if they had a problem with the new door. None did. One neighbor said she'd never noticed the different garage door, and stated that the homeowners association can be strict sometimes.

"They crack down on everyone for everything," the neighbor told the Gold Country Media.

Will Fairfax County have to enforce solar access laws in order to achieve extensive use of solar energy systems as well? In any case, solar is growing and more residents are looking towards alternative energy as a way to combat growing electricity costs. Certainly the regulations made by HOAs are conflicting with the latest efforts to switch to more environmentally-friendly types of energy.