Homeowners Associations vs. the Green Homeowner

by Nick Gromicko, CMI® 
Nationwide, homeowners' associations (HOAs) govern the approved uses of millions of properties. While HOAs ostensibly uphold property
Solar panels may not be appreciated by the neighbors
values by ensuring uniformity or a community's aesthetic standard, they sometimes interfere with individual homeowners’ attempts to install photovoltaic (solar) panels.
All over the country, conservative HOAs are trying to prevent homeowners from installing panels, even going to court over the issue.  As some homeowners seek to install new energy-efficient solar panels, many are finding that their neighbors and HOAs object, saying the additions defy historic-district regulations, or will look ugly, or will damage property values.
“Agreeing to projects without regard to the architectural guidelines of the community can create divisiveness and can affect property values,” said Frank Rathbun to the Wall Street Journal.  Rathbun is spokesman for the Community Associations Institute, an education and advocacy group based in Alexandria, Va. But residents say their right to invest in alternative energy trumps the sensibilities of neighbors who don't like how the panels look.
Of particular concern to many HOAs is solar panel color, which is usually selected based on financial and efficiency concerns.  Black, for instance, is a costly yet efficient choice, but it often fails the test of blending in with the colors of its surroundings. In 2007, the plans of an Arizona woman to build a solar-powered swimming pool were stalled when her HOA demanded she use a different color. PV panels come in muted colors as well, such as terra cotta and grey, but homeowners who want the most efficient panels will be stuck with black. In another case, the community board for Palos Verdes, Calif., homes rejected the permits for proposed PV panels because they were blue, rather than a more eye-pleasing shade of black. Bradley Bartz, a homeowner in the complex, complained that black panels were 30% more expensive than the panels he wanted.

Responding to aesthetic concerns, some photovoltaic companies have been building products with unobtrusiveness in mind. Standard Renewable Energy has introduced a system of racking that positions solar panels to appear flush with the roof. This company will not only install solar panels, they will also help the homeowner sell the plan to an HOA or zoning board. Some companies offer solar roof tiles, which are cut to look like typical roof tiles and, thus, stand out less than standard solar panels. Other PV companies will try to appease zoning boards by offering an additional, free, colored panel to match the efficiency of conspicuous black panels.

Results of the battles between homeowners and their HOAs have been mixed. A few interesting cases are described below:

  • Former Vice President Al Gore ran into trouble while trying to install solar panels on his Nashville home. A local zoning board initially refused to consider the application, but eventually gave in after appeals, redesigns, and a home inspection. Gore’s community has since revised its laws to allow solar panels.
  • The Saracheks became the first family in Scarsdale, New York, to gain approval from the town to install solar panels on their home, but only after a lengthy battle. In March of 2007, the town denied the family permission to install the panels because they were “not in keeping with the character of the community.” The family subsequently spent tens of thousands of dollars fighting the town before winning approval in a 4-3 decision by the town’s board of architectural review.
  • When Santa Clarita, Calif., resident Marty Griffin’s request to install solar panels was denied by his HOA, he installed them anyway. The association sued him and a jury ordered him to move the panels to a more discreet location.
In summary, some homeowners who try to install solar panels are finding resistance from their HOAs which fear the new devices will detract from the communities’ appearance and reduce property values. Laws, however, are increasingly changing to protect the rights of the homeowner.