If you live in a planned neighborhood or community, chances are you are part of a Homeowners Association, otherwise known as an HOA. Those associations manage shared amenities and establish rules for the neighborhood, most of which revolve around maintaining a particular aesthetic.
For many, that often includes rooftop solar systems. Solar power is more accessible and affordable than ever before and continues to be an increasingly attractive option for homeowners looking to harness the power of the sun.
The cost of solar panels have been cut in half since 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, and system installations across the U.S. have grown more than 35-fold in the last decade. That number is expected to only increase as Americans look to have more control over their energy.
But those who live in HOAs might not have as much control as they’d think or hope.
For this edition of The Scrub Hub, our series dedicated to answering your questions, we dive into the ins and outs of solar panels in HOA communities. More specifically, can an HOA prevent a homeowner from going solar?
Can HOAs stop homeowners from getting solar panels?
In short, it really depends. Some communities allow their residents to choose solar power, but many may restrict where and how the panels are installed. Others, thought, prohibit the systems.
In Central Indiana alone, nearly 400 homeowners associations have full or partial prohibitions, according to Zach Schalk, the Indiana Program Director for Solar United Neighbors. That means they are likely affecting tens of thousands of homeowners’ ability to go solar, he added.
Data from other parts of the state is hard to come by, Schalk said, but this is an example of what residents elsewhere around the state are likely to experience. Many such restrictions are based on outdated technology, such as solar heat panels. These systems are often clunkier — used to heat liquid or the air — and are obsolete today.
Still, many HOAs have not updated those covenants to reflect the advanced technologies, leaving homeowners with little to no recourse when living under these restrictions.
Solar panels and HOAs: It gets complicated
A common argument is that residents should learn about the community rules before they move in, and if solar isn’t allowed, then they should live elsewhere. But it’s not always that easy.
Some neighborhoods don’t actually specifically mention solar in their by-laws. Rather, it says decisions that would change the exterior of the home are left to an architectural review board. That often becomes a “de facto” restriction, Schalk said, that many homeowners would not realize at the time they move in.
That was the case for Indianapolis resident Joey Myles. He always knew he wanted solar and made sure to check all the HOA bylaws for the communities he and his wife were considering before buying. When he saw that the rules for one said solar was allowed as long as the panels were approved by the board, he assumed they were good to go.
Fast forward about a year after Myles had bought a property in that community, and the board said ‘no.’
“They said I couldn’t do it because the panels would face the street,” Myles said. “They say they want to make everything look nice for property values.”
Many of the concerns often come down to aesthetics. Part of living in a planned community comes with a particular look, and solar panels are thought to change that character or possibly reduce property values. However, the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Development in the U.S. Energy Department says that solar energy is actually likely to increase a home’s value.
Myles’ neighbors signed a letter saying that they didn’t mind if he got solar panels, but the board still wasn’t receptive. After some back and forth, the HOA finally allowed Myles to install panels, but he could place them only on the back of his house facing away from the street. The street side, however, gets the best sun and would be the best for solar.
Myles took the compromise, but said the panels weren’t nearly as productive in their north-facing location. He continued to pursue different options, and recently found a product called “solar skin,” which puts a film over the panels that can make them look like roof shingles. With that solution, the board allowed Myles to move the panels to the side of his house, but still not the front.
It’s a step in the right direction, he said. The company that makes the skins has had a lot of interest from residents living in HOAs looking for a similar work-around.
Many states, however, have enacted laws that protect a homeowner’s rights to generate solar electricity. At least 25 states have solar access laws, Schalk said, which ensure that HOAs cannot prohibit their members from installing solar on their properties. They do allow for some “reasonable restrictions” on the systems, such as requiring all wiring to be out of site, and often still require that members request permission before installing the panels.
A solar access law has been proposed in Indiana each year since 2017, but has ultimately never passed. It was modeled off of a solar access law in Texas — which wasn’t by accident, according to Laura Arnold, the director of Indiana Distributed Generation. She said they wanted to model Indiana’s law off of one from a conservative state, hoping it would gain more traction.
It came closest to passing in 2019, passing both the Indiana House and the Senate. But the bill died in conference committee, where lawmakers work through and try to find agreements on amendments made to the bill. After that, Indiana’s solar access legislation has not even received a hearing in the last two years.
Schalk, Myles and Arnold said they continue to work with community members and HOA boards to try to raise awareness and push to update the outdated rules. There have been minor successes, Schalk said, but gaining neighborhood support or joining the board is no guarantee.
That’s why they say legislation, both within Indiana and possibly at the federal level, is the best way to help increase access to solar systems in HOA communities.
This, of course, is just an overview to get you thinking. If you want more specifics, that’s a perfect opportunity to ask the Scrub Hub.
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Call IndyStar reporter Sarah Bowman at 317-444-6129 or email at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook: @IndyStarSarah. Connect with IndyStar’s environmental reporters: Join The Scrub on Facebook.
IndyStar’s environmental reporting project is made possible through the generous support of the nonprofit Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust.