You own your home. You want to save on your electric bill and reduce your carbon footprint. You’ve paid for a roof that can support solar panels. The next step is to research solar installation companies that serve your area, right? Wrong, say some Homeowners Associations (HOAs).
Across the U.S., homeowners who have installed solar panels without approval from their HOA are losing tens of thousands of dollars as they are forced to remove their solar systems. In Nebraska, Tim Adams of Omaha installed a $40,000 rooftop solar system and was sued by the South Shore Heights Homeowners Association, which said the solar panels “violated neighborhood covenants.” Although Adams settled, he vows not to give up the fight. The settlement requires the homeowner to remove his array of blue solar panels by July 1 and forbids him from making any other public comments regarding the case, the HOA, and its associated members.
The Omaha HOA argues that Adams failed to obtain approval before installing the panels, but chances are slim that the board would have approved his request—as the case with David and Angel Dobs reveals. The Georgia couple has asked for permission to install a 30-solar-panel time and time again, having made four revisions to their original proposal. The Vickery Lake Homeowners Association has denied their request every time.
In order to win approval from the HOA, board member Jim Graham said the panels will have to remain out of public view, such as mounted in the Dobses’ backyard and hidden by a fence. But the fence must also be approved by the HOA. The Vickery Lake HOA argues that the panels would “look out of place and could lower home values in the community,” reports the Huffington Post.
But there’s good news for solar power enthusiasts who belong to HOAs: these lawsuits have prompted some states—about two dozen—to limit HOAs' authority to ban solar panels. In Texas, no HOA can prohibit homeowners from installing solar energy systems on their rooftops, fenced-in yards or patios. Colorado HOAs can enforce “architectural guidelines” that can restrict the placement or appearance of solar panels. However, these aesthetic provisions may not result in a significant cost increase for the resident, nor can they hinder the solar system’s efficiency. California’s Solar Rights Act of 1978 prohibits HOAs from interfering with the installation of residential solar panels, although the law does allow for “reasonable restrictions” on solar energy systems. As a result, some HOAs have opposed even modest installations.
So what can homeowners do?
Negotiations are a good starting point. An HOA would be smart to spend time negotiating instead of spending money on court costs. Before starting negotiations, a homeowner can check to see whether their HOA covenant mentions solar systems directly. If not, or if the rules apply indirectly (such as forbidding other rooftop objects), this ambiguity will work in your favor if you go to court. If solar systems are explicitly banned, homeowners may be able to obtain a waiver by demonstrating that certain restrictions are unreasonable.For example, as Colorado recognizes, an HOA may not restrict placement if it causes the panels to lose efficiency—such as positioning them out of public view, and out of optimal sunlight.
Homeowners can also initially propose a solar system that is larger than intended, so that the revisions can include a size reduction that may be enough to satisfy the HOA. If these tactics fail, solar rights laws in your state may provide protection, although legal action is typically required to enforce these laws on a case-by-case basis.