Homeowners associations are known to restrict certain architectural modifications in communities. But, does this authority extend to prohibiting a North Carolina solar panel installation?
What Is the North Carolina Solar Access Law?
In 2007, North Carolina drafted and passed its first solar access law. Known as SB670, the law prohibited an HOA’s CC&Rs from banning “the reasonable use of a solar collector for a detached single-family residence.” The law only applies to HOAs formed after 2007.
While this law was a good first step toward protecting the solar rights of homeowners, it didn’t prevent associations from controlling where owners could install their solar panels. Essentially, HOAs don’t have the ability to deny requests to install North Carolina HOA solar panels, but they can block homeowners from installing them on a roof that faces the street or public — even if such a placement allows for maximum sun exposure.
North Carolina is not unique in that other states have similar solar access laws in place. For instance, the Solar Rights Act in California offers similar protections, prohibiting HOAs from banning solar panel installations. Solar access laws also exist in Arizona, Texas, and Florida. While these laws prevent an association from enacting rules that disallow solar panels, HOAs generally retain the ability to restrict their placement. Additionally, many HOAs require homeowners to go through a detailed application and approval process.
The Fight Against North Carolina HOA Solar Panel Restrictions
Living in a community managed by an HOA means having to abide by its rules. These rules can range from pet policies and noise rules to parking rules and maintenance requirements. In terms of architectural changes, HOAs have policies for those, too.
Homeowners associations typically have a set of architectural guidelines that all members must follow. These guidelines could consist of rules pertaining to paint color, the height of fences, the size of a shed, etc. But, it can also include rules about solar panels.
Many homeowners associations restrict the installation of solar panels because of how they look. They usually don’t conform to the aesthetic of the neighborhood. And with over 14,000 HOAs in North Carolina alone, that means there are millions of potential solar homeowners not getting the full advantage of these solar panels.
The problem has become so prevalent that several solar advocate organizations have sprouted. The North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association (NCSEA) is one of the most prominent ones fighting to change HOA solar restrictions and supporting bills that protect the right of homeowners to access solar energy. The NCSEA has also been known to empower and assist homeowners in negotiating with their associations.
Additionally, many solar energy companies have established dedicated departments designed to help homeowners seek HOA approval. These departments assist with completing application forms, providing necessary blueprints, and supplying other supporting documents. Because of HOA solar restrictions, companies lose up to hundreds of would-be solar owners every year.
Even with the North Carolina HOA solar installation law in place, though, conflicts still occur. Homeowners still find themselves at war with their HOAs when it comes to installing solar panels. Again, it all boils down to HOAs regulating the placement of solar panels, which could interfere with their effectiveness in collecting solar energy.
Belmont v. Farwig: A Pivotal Ruling
Tom Farwig set out to install solar panels on his rooftop with the help of Blue Raven Solar, a solar energy company based in Utah with operations in North Carolina. His HOA, Belmont Community Association, responded by fining the homeowner (which he consistently paid) and subsequently suing him. Farwig countersued, asserting that the HOA violated the North Carolina solar access law since solar panels weren’t expressly prohibited in the rules. The HOA, though, argued that solar panels fall under “improvements,” which is covered in the community’s rules.
The North Carolina Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Belmont. However, clean energy advocates, the rooftop solar industry, and even North Carolina’s attorney general have all filed briefs supporting Farwig. The case has now been elevated to the North Carolina Supreme Court, and the outcome will certainly set a precedent in terms of how much power HOAs have over solar energy.
Blue Raven Solar, much like many solar energy companies, does not typically install solar panels without HOA approval. But, due to a mistake, the company installed the solar panels without getting approval from Belmont. Five months later, the HOA requested an application from Farwig, and Blue Raven Solar supplied it. The permit even included signatures of 22 other residents of Belmont who supported the solar panel installation.
Belmont, though, rejected the permit multiple times. The HOA argued that the panels would not be aesthetically pleasing when seen from the public street. Farwig ended up paying $52,000 in fines, which Blue Raven Solar intends to reimburse along with Farwig’s attorney’s fees should the homeowner lose the case.
According to North Carolina’s solar access law, HOAs can’t explicitly or effectively ban solar. The only way they can prohibit front-facing solar panels is if the language in its rules expressly prohibits them. Homeowners associations can amend their declaration to include such a provision, but it would require a two-thirds vote from homeowners.
While the Supreme Court’s decision will certainly affect HOAs from here on out, solar companies and environmentalists believe it is not enough. The legislation will have a more prominent and long-lasting effect.
What This Means for Potential Homeowners
The ruling will not only have an impact on homeowners associations but also on those who intend to buy homes. If an HOA does not expressly regulate front-facing solar arrays in its declaration, a potential buyer may think that option remains available to them. They will end up buying the home and getting into a fight with their HOA similar to Farwig. With this in mind, would-be homeowners who wish to tap into solar energy will have to scrutinize every prospective community’s rules.
An Important Decision
The long-standing battle between homeowners and HOA solar restrictions will see an important development once the state’s Supreme Court makes its decision. Until then, homeowners associations must examine their own North Carolina solar restrictions to determine what needs to change.
Navigating an HOA’s governing documents can come as a challenge to inexperienced board members. Get help from Cedar Management Group by calling (877) 252-3327 or contacting us online.
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