Saturday, January 21, 2012

Should HOAs Restrict Solar Panel Use?

A homeowners association (HOA) says a family's solar panels are against the rules and need to be removed. While the situation might seem simple, it brings up a bigger issue that some Idaho legislators are discussing: Should neighborhoods be allowed to dictate how a house gets its power?

HOAs can restrict solar panels

As it stands now in Idaho, if a homeowners association or HOA wants to restrict solar panels through its covenants, it can. Some people would like to see that changed, including Peggy Bostrom, a homeowner in the midst of this very discussion.

Four months ago, Bostrom and her husband installed several solar panels on the roof of their Tuscany subdivision home. They can power nearly everything in the downstairs level of their home from those panels. They can also use them as a backup power supply if there is an outage.

"We put the solar panels in for, basically, emergency back-up power if we need it," Bostrom said.

'I don't see a problem with them'

Bostrom said they didn't realize their homeowners association covenants required the panels be approved. She said they even picked out panels they thought looked nice and matched their home best.

"I don't see a problem with them," she said. "They don't affect the structure of the house. They're not changing anything. They pretty much blend in with the house and to me, from a distance, they just look like skylights."

Last month, the HOA manager wrote to the Bostroms, saying they told the Bostroms they needed to seek approval by submitting plan details and photos. If they didn't, they could face a possible lawsuit.

The Bostroms applied and sent photos. On Friday, they got a letter from the HOA manager saying their request had been denied, and the panels must be removed.

"There is no good reason as to why they denied, why they would say you couldn't have them," Bostrom said.

HOA: Panels don't meet design guidelines

The property management company's owner, Craig Groves, explained the HOA is not against all solar panels, and if they fall within certain parameters, they could be allowed.

Groves sent KTVB this statement on behalf of the Tuscany Architectural Control Committee and the Tuscany Home Owners Association Board of Directors:

"'Solar Panels are allowed if the Architectural Control Guidelines are met.' The solar panels in question were installed without prior approval. It is the duty of the ACC to uphold the architectural design integrity of the neighborhood. The Resident ACC felt the way the solar panels were installed did not meet the architectural design integrity of the neighborhood and denied the after installation approval. The Association's board concurred with the decision."

The Tuscany covenants, conditions, and restrictions (CC&Rs) are available online. There is a section specifically addressing "Energy Devices, Outside". It says all energy production devices, including generators and solar energy devices, need prior written approval unless it's incorporated into the approved design of the home.

Senator: It's an energy and property rights issue

Senator Elliot Werk (D-Boise) brought up this very issue in November as an interim legislative committee drafted a recommended state energy plan. He said it's partially a renewable energy issue, partially a property rights issue.

"There have been issues with homeowners associations having rules against solar panels, simply saying you can't have a solar panel or having other restrictions that make it impossible to put a solar panel on a house," Werk said. "The reality is that having a solar panel on a house is a real community good. Every house a battery."

Werk says solar energy should be encouraged as a renewable energy source, but he understands HOAs are trying to preserve a certain lifestyle and standard. That's where any legislation could get tricky, and Werk says without a lot of people taking issue, a new statute this session is unlikely.

New statute unlikely this session

"We want to make sure we hit the sweet spot between being too restrictive on homeowners associations to control the looks and the feel of their communities versus protecting property rights and allowing these good things for our communities," Werk said.

Senator Curt McKenzie (R-Nampa) co-chaired the Energy, Environment, and Technology Interim Committee that drafted the proposed 2012 Energy Plan. He confirmed the HOA and solar panel issue is not in the proposal, and at this point, he is unaware of any legislators planning to present bills that would address the issue.

Werk would like homeowners with HOA solar panel restriction concerns to contact him via email or at 208-332-1352.

Homeowner: 'It's my right'

Bostrom plans to contact the HOA's committee before doing anything with her panels, but as of now, the panels remain on her rooftop.

"There are certain points where HOAs are good: Keeping up aesthetics of a home, you don't have cars up on blocks, you don't have a neighbor with a purple house, but there's parts where they overstep their bounds," Bostrom said. "It's my right to have access to power from the sun. It's there for everybody. I think everybody should be using it."

Neighboring states with solar rights laws

Nearly half of states have passed some type of solar rights laws that in some way limit restrictions that neighborhood covenants or local ordinances can impose on solar panel installation. The Department of Energy lists Washington, Oregon, and Nevada among those states.


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