Home Owners Associations and Your Solar Rights

This blog is the result of many calls to TSEA regarding homeowners rights when their home owners associations prevent homes in their association from installing solar panels. The original article is thanks to the American Solar Energy Society (ASES) and their solar citizen newsletter. Join TSEA and ASES to create a strong ally in promoting solar in our state and in our country.

By Steve Wright

The benefits of residential solar panel arrays are becoming clearer with each passing year. Rooftop solar panels reduce energy expenditures, carbon emissions and infrastructure-related inefficiencies. There’s also mounting evidence that solar increases the value of the home. Unfortunately, homeowner associations across the country continue to ignore the overwhelmingly positive body of evidence and impose onerous restrictions on residential solar panel installations. Read on to learn how to fight back.

Rights of the HOA
Well-established legal precedents support efforts by HOAs to impose “reasonable restrictions” on their members’ attempts to install solar panels. Generally speaking, courts have been reticent to overturn specific HOA bylaws unless they are found to be arbitrary, unconstitutional or blatantly illegal.

Because an outright ban might look arbitrary (or illegal in many states), HOAs often make rules that restrict the visibility and size of solar panel arrays. Ostensibly designed to promote health and “peace of mind” by reducing glare and rendering “eyesores” less visible, these restrictions often compel homeowners to move their panels to shady, fenced-in yards or to first-floor roofs that can’t be seen from the road.

Unfortunately, HOAs can also use certain legal caveats to deny solar panel installation outright. These often take the form of restrictive covenants designed to preserve or increase property values. They may purport to preserve a community’s “brand” by standardizing the appearance of its homes. Unlike restrictive covenants that come with “sunset clauses” or “express termination” windows, bylaws that restrict solar panel use tend to be permanent and must be invalidated by legal challenges or law changes.

Solar Access Laws
With this in mind, several states have enacted common-sense legal protections for homeowners who want to go solar. While these generally don’t interfere with the “reasonable restrictions” guideline, they prevent persnickety HOAs from making punitive demands on well-meaning members.

California’s Solar Rights Act serves as the model for most of these state laws. Although it was originally intended to prevent HOAs from imposing arbitrary restrictions or outright bans on solar panel arrays, it has since been expanded to cover municipal and regional government bodies. The law has also been amended to ensure that homeowners retain access to state-sponsored solar energy grants and to protect inhabitants of multi-unit dwellings like high-rise apartments and condominiums.

Florida’s own Solar Rights Law offers similar protections. Without interfering with the commonly accepted “reasonable restrictions” allowance, the law prohibits HOAs from banning solar panel arrays and specifically overrides any HOA bylaws that curtail the installation of rooftop solar panels. In other words, Florida homeowners can use most or all of their roofs’ square footage to install arrays.
Even wintry Massachusetts has gotten in on the action. The state’s Solar Access Law nullifies existing and future HOA prohibitions and expressly permits solar easements on residential land. Even better, it prohibits HOAs from restricting the trimming and clearing of vegetation that obscures solar panels on members’ properties.

Remedies for Homeowners
Most homeowners start by attempting to persuade their HOA to refrain from unreasonable restrictions on solar panel installation. This requires an age-old persuasion tactic: the power of credibility. Homeowners often point to credible sources that support the efficacy of solar power. They might cite the U.S. Energy Department’s estimate that a single 10,000 square-mile patch of the Nevada desert receives enough sunlight to satisfy the entire country’s energy needs, or multiple studies that have found a positive correlation between residential solar panel arrays and home values.

Such persuasive efforts must focus on the positive aspects of solar power and cite concrete evidence from non-controversial sources. You could argue that solar panels would reduce homeowner electricity bills and the frequency of peak-period blackouts. Use a politically-neutral source for your facts — the U.S. Department of Energy has a website rich with good data. It’s hard to argue with concrete evidence.

If these efforts prove insufficient, homeowners generally attempt to negotiate a compromise agreement. Since aesthetic concerns often drive these restrictive covenants, successful agreements may require homeowners to keep front-facing portions of their roofs free of solar panels. As a compromise, HOAs might allow solar panel users to trim trees that shade these arrays. Magnanimous homeowners might even volunteer to divert a portion of their panels’ production to commonly held equipment like public-area sprinkler systems or streetlights.

In the worst case, a homeowner may be forced to take legal action against a stubborn HOA. Pro-solar organizations advise homeowners who pursue this course of action to focus on HOA-initiated actions that a court might find to be arbitrary, punitive or “unreasonable.” Ultimately, litigants must be prepared to cite facts that refute common arguments about negative home-value and aesthetic impacts. Those who wish to pursue legislative remedies often use stronger solar-rights laws, like those in Massachusetts and Florida, as templates.

Conclusion
Despite widespread legal protections for homeowners, many HOAs go to great lengths to restrict members’ rights to install solar panel arrays on private property. In a world beset by rising fossil-fuel energy costs, weakening electric infrastructure and a deteriorating natural environment, tension between an HOA and its members is counterproductive. Fortunately, commonsense legislation and a growing body of pro-solar legal precedents have made it easier for homeowners to fight back against overzealous HOAs.
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Steve Wright works for Whirlwind Steel Buildings

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