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Homeowners' Associations and Solar Panels: Can they Live in Harmony?

06-09-2010
Category: Solar Policy and Incentives

Related Articles:  Homeowners' Associations Battle Residents Who Want to Go Solar (Part 1)

                           Homeowners Duke it Out with Their Homeowners' Association: How Best to Solve the Problem (Part 2)

As the Deepwater Horizon oil spill continues to threaten wildlife and the economy, solar energy has been stepping up to the plate as more and more people begin to see the significance behind renewable energy. While President Obama has chosen the spill to emphasize the administration's plans for alternative energy, and more people are buying solar energy products in order to advocate alternative energy, not everyone wants solar energy in their backyards.

Across the nation, homeowners' associations (HOA) have been fighting residents' attempts to put up solar panels. When you purchase your home in many neighborhoods, you sign conditions, covenants and restrictions (CC&Rs) that limit how you may use your property. These HOA rules are now the subject of debate and lawsuits across the country.

Not all New Jerseyans are on board

In New Jersey, resident Mukul Sinvhal of Somerset County was forced by his HOA to remove his 28 solar panels. He had them installed on the roof of his house in an upscale development only to have the development's HOA order him to remove them just 8 months later.

Although the majority of New Jerseyans have favored renewable sources of energy, according to polls, Matt Elliott, a spokesman for Environment New Jersey, said in an NJ article that things can become very personal when they happen next door. "Unfortunately, there's always a vocal minority which will oppose any initiative, and that often makes it hard for a town council or community board to go ahead and move on projects. I see that as the biggest barrier to renewable energy in New Jersey. That makes it really hard for a resident to move forward and do the right thing."

Dozens of similarly situated homeowners have lobbied lawmakers for a bill that would allow them to install solar panels. They finally got it, but they risked losing out on state solar subsidies. However, Elliott is convinced that as more people install solar panels, they and other renewable technologies will become less controversial.

No harmonious solar additions in Pennsylvania

Meanwhile, not too far from New Jersey, Robert Caffro of Chest County in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania thought he found a solar solution for his home. He wanted to install some home solar panels that he'd arranged to buy. His request was denied by his HOA, who sent Caffro a letter citing this clause in the neighborhood's rules: "Any addition, enclosure, garage, appurtenant building, fence, wall, planting or other improvement or modification erected, placed or maintained within a Unit shall be harmonious in design with the single family resident dwelling within the Unit."

Caffro thought the black rooftop solar panels he selected were "harmonious" with the traditional homes in his subdivision. He had planned to have the panels to be affixed to the back-facing slope of the roof of his two-story home, believing the entire thing to be "architecturally unobtrusive." Caffro's homeowner's association denial to his request left him baffled, according to a Green Right Now article:  "Who stops someone from doing something that's good for the planet, lowers your costs for energy and helps you survive?"

Fighting to keep solar panels in Virginia

Not too far from the nation's capital, where the President is stressing the importance of alternative energy, another homeowner is fighting his HOA to keep his solar panels. In Springfield, Virginia, George Hite decided to convert to solar; he installed solar collectors to power his solar water heater. He said he initially received approval from his HOA and had the solar collectors installed last Thanksgiving at a cost of $10,000. However, in January 2010, Hite received a letter from his HOA, stating that his solar collectors were out of compliance due to their visibility from the street. In a video from NBC Washington, Hite voices his frustration: "It's stressful and not necessary. I was trying to work with them, I feel like they're not working with me. And then they accuse me of being deceitful."

Although Hite is not sure what is next between him and his HOA on the matter of his solar collectors, he claims that he is not removing the solar collectors. He also points to several other objects and structures of his neighboring rooftops, such as satellite dishes, and states at least his solar panels are doing something good for the environment.

Resistance in California leads to lawsuits and compromises

Across the country, the West Coast isn't faring much better on the issue. Marc Weinberg of Camarillo, California wanted to put up 600 square feet of solar panels on top of his house. Tired of his electricity bills, Weinberg believed he could save $330 per month with the solar energy system, as well as be eco-friendly at the same time. It was in his mind, a win-win situation. But, to his Spanish Hills Homeowners Association, it was not.

They denied his proposal, stating any solar modules installed would have to be at the back of his house where they couldn't be seen. However, to Weinberg, that would mean a more than 20 percent decrease in his solar system's efficiency. Weinberg filed suit, claiming that the Spanish Hills HOA violated California's Solar Rights Act. According to California's Office of Historic Preservation, the 1978 California Solar Rights Act was enacted to encourage the use of solar energy by residential and commercial property owners and limits local government restrictions on solar installations:  "[It] does not necessarily bar reasonable restrictions on solar installations. It does establish the legal right to a solar easement, defines which solar energy systems are covered by its provisions, and limits local governments from adopting ordinances that would unreasonably restrict the use of solar energy systems."

In a Ventura County Star article, Weinberg claims California's Solar Rights Act is "very open and shut. If someone wants to go ahead and put this technology up, they should be emboldened."

Marco Suarez, owner of Thousand Oaks-based Advanced Solar Electric, said there is a noticeable increase in demand for solar form year to year in Ventura County. In the same Ventura County Star article, he declares:  "Solar is exploding. If we wanted to double or triple our business, we could."

One of Suarez's previous clients, John Dwight, also met resistance with his HOA after wanting to put a ground-mounted unit on a rear slope. His HOA denied his proposal, stating that the unit could be seen. Eventually, the two parties compromised and Dwight put up a roof-mounted unit instead, even though Dwight says that the unit is 12 percent less efficient than the ground-mounted unit he'd initially planned to put up. Nonetheless, Dwight advocated the importance of solar energy systems in general, stating that: "I think every house should have it. I think it should be mandated by law."

Possible solar bill in Texas

In the Lone Star state, solar installers are just as frustrated as homeowners about the problem. John Berger, the chief executive of Standard Renewable Energy, a Houston-based firm that designs and installs solar systems for homes, said that the homeowner associations' prohibitions had already cost him more than $1 million business. In the New York Times, Berger asserts that "it is a big problem."

Meanwhile, lawmakers in Texas are considering a bill that would prevent homeowner associations from prohibiting solar panels. Similar laws are already in place in more than a dozen states, including Arizona, California, Colorado, and Florida, to name a few.

The bill is being headed by Republican Burt Solomons, which would take aim at homeowners associations that ban the use of solar panels by homeowners. Solomons believes this rule is inconsistent with current efforts to switch to more environmentally-friendly types of energy.

What this could mean for your solar energy system?

Despite the problems between HOA's and homeowners who want to put up solar panels, this should not deter anyone who's interested in putting up solar panels. However, this doesn't mean you should ignore the HOA CC&Rs that you signed when you purchased your home. You need to know what they say and whether they are enforceable given state legislation that may limit how they are applied to solar energy systems.

Navigating the potential hassles of dealing with an HOA when you want to install solar panels can be a pain, but it is possible.  You should review the CC&Rs regulating the uses and aesthetics of a neighborhood and are enforceable to all property owners. It is also advisable to review the CC&Rs to determine if there are any explicit prohibitions against solar panels. Even if your CC&Rs and HOA bylaws are clear, you should determine whether there are additional regulating documents that may apply to the installation of solar panels. If you're unsure whether or not you can install solar panels in your neighborhood, you can also ask the Board of Directors or someone in the regulating body in your association.

Each individual HOA is unique, from the people involved to the CCR&S and the bylaws. Solar panels are slowly being accepted in many neighborhoods, and it may take time before they're adequately accepted in every subdivision. Do your homework - it can save you a lot of time and money, and can lead you to a successful solar journey.

Tags: homeowners' associations and solar energy systems, solar energy systems, solar panels, solar modules, disputes between neighbors about solar energy systems, solar modules


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