The history of solar access laws is rooted in the English law of Ancient Lights, or the aptly named “Right to Light.” Under this reverse easement, homeowners’ rights to sunshine unobstructed by neighboring buildings or their accompanying structures were labeled and protected.
Unfortunately for the Americans in the audience, this blanket right to glorious sunshine was struck down in 1959 during a feisty hotel vs. hotel battle on the beaches of Miami, in which the Eden Roc Hotel tried to halt the Fontainebleau Hotel from progressing with a 14-story expansion that would block out the sun over the Eden Roc’s swimming pool and cabanas. While the court originally sided with the Eden Roc, the decision was overturned when the Florida District Court of Appeals ruled that sunlight was not a legal right.
Now, homeowners are subject to fragmented policies of local legislation and neighborhood Covenants, Conditions, and Restrictions (CC&Rs). These varied restrictions must be navigated carefully, and always neighborly. After all, you have to live there after everything is said and done. To that end, we’ve provided a simple guide to working with your HOA to achieve solar satisfaction.
Step 1: Know Your Rights!
The first step to approaching your HOA is to understand the overarching solar access laws in your jurisdiction. Check out this list of rules, regulations, and policies by state to get a feel for the solar access laws in your area, if any. Though related, solar access laws can be divided into Solar Easement Provisions and Solar Rights Provisions.
This distinction is explained by the Solar America Board for Codes and Standards: Solar Easement Provisions dictate “the ability of one property to continue to receive sunlight across property lines without obstruction from another’s property” — a law of Contemporary Lights — while, Solar Rights Provisions specify “the ability to install solar energy systems on residential and commercial property that is subject to private restrictions” (e.g. CC&Rs).
Thanks to the rapid growth of residential solar and mounting public pressures, many states have adopted solar access laws. Recent reports show that, as of mid-2013, forty states had passed solar access laws to protect the rights of homeowners to install solar systems. Of these forty, twenty-one addressed the issue of Covenants, Conditions, and Restrictions imposed by Homeowners Associations. The language used to express these laws can be difficult to parse, however. Below are some examples of the phrasing you should watch out for when your rights are well-protected.
Be sure to look into local zoning ordinances, comprehensive plans, and building codes, as well.
2. Get to Know Your HOA.
After you’ve gotten familiar with the big picture in your state or region, narrow your focus down to your particular Homeowners Association. In essence, your HOA is your hood’s residential private government, and as such, can run the gamut between benevolent and tyrannical rulers. On the one hand, HOAs strive to better their community through management, maintenance, and even by providing recreational amenities. Where many HOAs begin to rub their tenants the wrong way is through aesthetic restrictions.
These regulations on appearance are often targeted at solar systems. HOAs most commonly place restrictions on solar systems based on the following factors: placement, protrusions above roof level, wind-load tolerances, roof penetrations, color compliance, and paperwork requirements. While many of these factors are subject to the design of your system and the layout of your roof, be careful to consider all of your options and investigate how solar systems have been approved in the past in your neighborhood. If you’re the first, be a trendsetter! Research shows that solar systems are contagious!
Once you’ve done all the research and are ready to submit your application for approval, double and triple check for completeness. Be sure to include all requested diagrams, pictures, and component product information, so your application cannot be rejected on the grounds that it is incomplete.
3. Negotiate and Reach a Compromise
Your HOA’s review committee may return your application with required changes regarding aesthetic or safety restrictions. If you believe these proposed changes are unreasonable in expense or effort, try to negotiate. Attempts to compromise may include arguments to the exemption of your solar system from certain restrictive covenants, seeking a waiver from certain restrictions, modifying the system to conform to these aesthetic and architectural requirements, seeking a modification of the requirements to conform to your system, or obtaining release agreements. Whatever your approach, it should depend on how the covenant is written and your knowledge of how decisions are commonly reached within your unique HOA.
If a compromise cannot be reached between yourself and the review committee, get your installer involved. Many solar installers have dealt with neighborhood compliance issues and are skilled at cooperating with HOAs to find a creative solution to satisfy aesthetic requirements while maximizing system efficiency. If you don’t have a relationship with an installer yet, get in contact with trusted experts in your area through our sign-up form.
4. Don’t Tolerate Bullying
Homeowners Associations have the power to levy heavy penalties on homeowners who fail to comply with their CC&R agreements. These penalties can include fees, forced compliance, and even HOA-driven lawsuits. However, these penalties cannot be used to punish you under the protection of your local legislative easement and rights provisions. Do your best to work in conjunction with your HOA, but know that you don’t have to tolerate bullying, excessive delays, or unreasonable claims against your proposal.
If you have questions about your solar potential and what solar would look like on your home, your best bet is to get in contact with local experts.
Last modified: January 25, 2016