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Casting a shadow on home solar panels; Neighborhood groups have blocked efforts

The government wants you to install solar panels at your house and will even give you a tax break to do it. But your neighbors? Maybe not.

It's a lesson Angel and David Dobs discovered when their homeowners association north of Atlanta denied their request to install solar panels on their roof. Neighborhood officials said the panels would look out of place and might lower home values in a community that regulates details as fine as the coloring of roof tiles, the planting of trees and the storage of trash cans.

"It's like living under communism -- someone gets to dictate every possible thing you do," David Dobs said.

Homeowners associations around the country have banned or severely restricted the installation of solar panels, and the solar industry has pushed back to halt the practice.

A recent attempt in Georgia to expand the right to go solar had support from environmentalists and some Republican lawmakers concerned about private property rights, but it succumbed to opposition from developers and real estate agents.

Roughly two dozen states now forbid or limit homeowners associations or local governments from banning solar panels, according to a database run by North Carolina State University. Similar disputes have prompted lawsuits in Nebraska and California.

Angel and David Dobs supported the Georgia legislation after their run-in with the homeowners association. David Dobs had viewed the project as his personal contribution to prevent global warming.

Leaders of the Vickery Lake Homeowners Association in Cumming say the dispute is about architecture and aesthetics, not the merits of solar power. Homeowners automatically accept the community rules when they purchase a home there.

"We're not going to debate whether it's a good idea to have green energy or not," said Jim Pearson, the association's president.

These debates are likely to keep flaring as more people install solar energy systems, because the equipment is getting cheaper, and governments subsidize the cost. Taxpayers can now deduct 30 percent of the cost of installing solar panels from their federal tax bill. Other states and local governments offer additional incentives.

The fight is not new. Some solar rights laws date back to the 1970s, while other states have added similar measures more recently.

California's law, first enacted in 1978, prevents homeowners associations from forcing residents to make aesthetic changes to photovoltaic panels that raise the cost by more than $2,000 or decrease a system's efficiency more than 20 percent.

Most disputes in California are worked out privately, but a few have reached the court system. Last year, a California appellate court upheld a decision forcing a couple to remove solar panels that were installed in their yard without the approval of their homeowners association. They were allowed to keep other panels on their roof.

Texas adopted a law last year preventing homeowners associations from totally blocking solar panels. The law makes clear that residents can install them on roofs or in fenced-in yards or patios, subject to some limits.

In Georgia, the fight between the Dobses and their homeowners association started in 2010. David Dobs said the rules required that he and his wife seek permission to build solar panels.

Even in states that give homeowners the right to install solar panels, homeowners associations still ban them.

Neighborhood leaders in a Salem, Ore., subdivision rejected Larry Lohrman's request to install solar panels on his roof because their rules banned the equipment, Lohrman said. He successfully argued that a 1979 solar rights law made that ban illegal, and he and a neighbor helped the association draft guidelines governing the installation of solar panels.

His panels started producing power in 2010, though Lohrman said he nearly abandoned the effort in frustration during the year it took to write the new guidelines for his homeowners association.

"They're just afraid that someone's going to put up this big, honking ugly thing that reflects light and just looks ugly," he said.