Updated: May 20, 2010
[Updated to include USA Today Article on homeowners' associations]
We have emphasized that you need to spend time designing your residential solar PV system-and that includes checking with your zoning board of your local municipality and checking with your homeowners' association to make sure that your solar modules comply with applicable zoning and other restrictions. Whether you own a few solar panels atop your residence or an entire large-scale solar farm, zoning laws are a bigger deal than you might think.
In the last several months there have been several instances of problems between solar project owners and their zoning commissions.
Homeowners of Plumstead Township, Pennsylvania obtained their zoning permits and installed three solar panels in their backyard, but according to The Intelligencer, their neighbors subsequently challenged the permit. This is their story:
The [homeowners] applied for a zoning and building permit last November to install a three-panel solar array in the backyard of their property. The township's part-time zoning officer . . . approved the zoning on Dec. 4 and the building permit on Dec. 9. The officer . . . determined the panels were a residential accessory use.
In accordance with plans provided to Plumstead, the panels, each measuring about 10 feet wide and 16 feet high, were installed.
[Neighbors] challenged the permits, arguing the township's ordinance does not specifically include solar panels as an accessory use.
Plumstead's zoning hearing board agreed, saying an accessory use is defined as garages, fences, walls, non-commercial swimming pools and other similar uses.
The homeowners are filing an appeal in an attempt to overturn the zoning board's decision, arguing that that local ordinance is at best ambiguous as to the classification of solar panels and that the ordinance should be interpreted in favor of the property owner.
The Plumstead homeowners are not the only ones facing zoning dilemmas for their solar installations. There are reports from all parts of the country regarding zoning challenges to solar projects. Here is an article about a resident of Ledyard, Connecticut who received permission from his zoning commission to erect solar panels on his farm but was later criticized. According to an article in The Day:
The Zoning Commission unanimously approved the installation of two solar panels at . . . a five-acre farm owned by Robert Burns.
But it wasn't until two weeks ago, when [the homeowner] was seeking a zoning variance that would allow him to have a temporary greenhouse located near the front of his property, that [the Zoning Commission vice chairman] criticized the appearance of the panels.
[The homeowner] insisted he installed the panels to meet the commission's specific concerns but the commission said it would readdress the issue in about six months.
The problems may just be starting for this homeowner as he will not get a clear answer for another several months. And the homeowner may face not only problems with zoning , but also restrictions imposed by homeowners' associations on the ability of homeowners to place solar panels on their homes. As reported in USA Today, as homeowners increasingly seek to turn to green practices such as installing solar energy systems, "they are finding those plans in conflict with the rules of homeowners associations that encourage conformity in order to maintain property values."
In response to the detrimental effect that these restrictions may have on the homeowner's ability to adopt renewable energy, some states have stepped in to limit homeowners' associations' covenants prohibiting solar panels. Just this year, Texas and Illinois have considered bills restricting these covenants, following Delaware, Maine, Vermont and Washington last year. As the article indicates, "the issue is heating up and state legislatures are stepping in to assure homeowners have the right to go green."
These cases make one thing very clear: make sure you know the zoning laws and restrictions from your homeowners' association before starting a solar project.