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Homeowners Associations and Solar Panels Don't Always Mix

Having built a swimming pool for his children in his backyard, Matt Burdick of Chandler, Arizona planned to heat it in winter with solar hot water panels. It would be an environmentally responsible and economical way to heat a non-essential part of his home, he thought. But the $5,000 panels had not been in place on his roof for long before he received an official letter ordering their removal. Not from the State of Arizona, the local police department or the Chandler Planning Department, but from the Homeowners' Association of which he was a dues-paying member.

If you're one of the approximately 57 million Americans whose living arrangements are governed to some degree by a Condo, Co-op or Homeowners' Association (HOA), you're probably aware of the set of rules that are in place as a means to maintaining the community's integrity.

An HOA is a legal entity created by a real estate developer for the purpose of developing, selling and managing a community of homes through the enforcement of a set of covenants, conditions and restrictions for the development.  These covenant can range from prohibiting residents from putting out old sofas and tires on their front lawns (a laudable effort) to stipulating the kind of ground cover and irrigation system a homeowner must maintain (which some may say is an invasion of personal rights). 

The intent of these covenants is to maintain a certain level quality, which it is hoped will benefit all of the residents' property values.  Yet many homeowners in such communities are upset by the power of HOA boards.  Awnings, ceiling fans, and even that icon of Americana, the basketball hoop, have been cited by one HOA or another as unsightly in sternly-worded letters to ‘offenders.' 

Today, as more and more individuals want to reduce the carbon footprint of their homes, the bylaws of some HOAs are being challenged by members who, like Burdick, want to install solar panels on their roofs.

In Matt Burdick's case, his HOA took advantage of a loophole in state law to force compliance.  Although the State of Arizona prohibits HOAs from banning solar installations outright, it does allow them to rule on the siting and color of panels.  This sort of concession allows HOA boards to require, for example, that panels be painted white, hidden behind trees and pointed north.  In the case of Burdick's HOA, they called for the panels to be colored light brown to match his roof, which would have rendered them useless. Rather than pay a daily fine, he took down the panels while a new law that closes the loophole worked its way through the state legislature.

Arizona represents a small but growing trend in which state governments appear to be more forward-looking in accommodating clean energy projects than HOA boards.  At least twelve states, including California, Florida and Hawaii as well as Arizona, have laws on their books restricting HOAs' ability to ban solar installations.  Some also address that other plank of most HOA restrictive covenants, the outdoor clothes line.  Anecdotal evidence suggests that individual homeowners trying to ‘go green' still face an uphill battle when dealing with HOA boards, but when state laws are on their side the scales usually tip in the homeowners favor.

The Greener HOA

When retired engineer and design committee member of the Portola Valley Ranch HOA, Armand Neukerman saw An Inconvenient Truth," he decided to leverage the power of his HOA in a positive way.  With the support of many of his neighbors, Neukerman began to research solar energy companies with a view to creating community-wide solar power.  After several months, he chose SolarCity of Foster City, California, a company that offered attractive discounts on community-level programs.

"SolarCity took a lot of the work off our hands," said Nuekerman.  "And they, of course, benefited from the sheer quantity of the business we represented for them.  In the end, they added solar arrays of 3-3.5kW to thirty of the two hundred homes in the community.  We enjoyed a 30% discount, which brought the price down to about $5600 per kW installed."

Neukerman also points out that the community-wide approach seemed to defuse objections from the HOA. 

Perhaps the conservative HOA mindset has begun to give way to one that is much more progressive and HOAs themselves can even be agents for change.

As for Matt Burdick, in the end his tenacity paid off.  The very day that the new Arizona law limiting HOA powers went into effect this September he reapplied to install his solar hot water panels.  The HOA approved the application the same day, and now the panels again grace his roof and provide solar-heated water for his children's pool.

Chris Stimpson is the executive campaigner and activist for the Solar Nation advocacy group solar-nation.org. Solar Nation is the nationwide campaign where citizens rally and convince their leaders to make America a true Solar Power. As the locus of grassroots American activism in support of legislation and regulation of solar energy issues, Solar Nation seeks to positively affect state and federal policy, enabling solar power to become a significant part of America's energy future. Visit or join Solar Nation at www.solar-nation.org.

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