How Homeowner’s Associations Defeat Green

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More and more, homeowner’s associations in the U.S. have taken the tack that, when in doubt if a member is in violation, sue.

Homeowners associations are commonly governing bodies that regulate the painting, decorating, landscaping and buildout of homes, townhomes or condominiums in a specific area that were built during a particular period by a builder or builders.

These associations, also called HOAs, are corporations that allow developers to pass ownership of a particular subdivision along to the buyers without incurring any liability for future financial or legal difficulties.

But the legal problems continue. In fact, they proliferate, according to a Yahoo finance article, which points out that, in California alone, three-quarters of HOAs are involved in a legal dispute.

These disputes arise amongst the various owners, most often over aesthetic or boundary issues, and are adjudicated by a board of directors elected by the homeowners.

Being a board member of a HOA is some people’s first experience of power, and it’s often a heady one. Add to that the fact that most HOA bylaws were drawn up before the first occupant put down a welcome mat, and that reserve operating funds are an enticing source of ready cash, and you have a situation ripe for abuse.

We’ve all heard the horror stories, most recently in Georgia, where an Army veteran is being deprived of a free handicapped accessible home because it might affect property values.

This is clearly an egregious abuse of power, more flagrant and disturbing than ruling against clotheslines, for example, or front-yard gardens, but it is a prime example of the extent to which HOA boards will go to exert, extend and maintain their power.

The problem is, clotheslines are actually a benefit to the environment, reducing the amount of coal, oil or gas power plants have to burn to generate the electricity gobbled by electric (or gas) clothes dryers.

Gardens are another environmental benefit, providing fresh food that doesn’t have to be shipped using gasoline or diesel fuel. They are especially valuable when organic, because this eliminates some of the fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides that routinely make their way into rivers and, ultimately, into the ocean, where they cause dead zones (like that in the Gulf of Mexico at the exit of the Mississippi River, though this is only one of 405 such zones, up from 49 in the 1960s).

Homeowner’s associations have also been known to sue over such eco-friendly measures as rain gardens (“too many bugs’), grey water recycling (“icky”), xeriscaping, cutting access for skylights, or attic/whole-house, fans (“that isn’t the way the houses were designed to look”), bamboo decks and porches (“that’s not really wood, you know”), letting the grass get nine inches tall (the regulation height is typically six inches, sometimes as few as three), or even using VOC-free paint (“it isn’t one of our regulation colors”).

But the worst abuse, at least in terms of global warming and the need for cleaner sources of power, is of course a HOA board’s refusal to allow rooftop solar panels. This happens more often than you might think, in spite of the last decade of emphasis on all things “green”.

It’s easy enough to see why rooftop wind turbines are forbidden; they are obtrusive, even when no taller than three feet. But solar panels? Once up, they aren’t even that noticeable, except to people who lack a life of their own and therefore go around looking for problems. In fact, many manufacturers have made a special effort to design panels (and racks, and mounting hardware) that is aesthetically pleasing.

Fortunately, a lot of states have seen the light (pun intended) and instituted solar access laws which prevent HOAs from outlawing a solar panel rooftop array used to generate power. These include Arizona, California, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oregon, Vermont, Virginia, and Wisconsin. To learn about provisions in your state, visit DSIRE (the Database of State Incentives for Renewable Energy), or download the report from the Solar ABC website.

Where no solar access laws exist, you might want to round up your neighbors and see if you can get a petition, or a measure, started. It takes a lot of letters to your government representatives, and equally as many phone calls, but if you’re retired it will keep you busy and interested – the two best cures for aging. It might also require a lawyer, but a lot of attorneys will do pro bono consulting for environmental causes now.

Above all, don’t give up. Because a win for your solar panels is also a win for Mother Nature, who is getting really hot about all the carbon emissions we’ve created in the last century.

Article by Jeanne Roberts, appearing courtesy Celsias.

About Author

Walter’s contributions to CleanTechies over the past 4 years have been instrumental in growing the publications social media channels via his ongoing editorial and data driven strategies. He is the founder and managing director of Sunflower Tax, a renewable energy tax and finance consultancy based in San Diego, California. Active in the San Diego clean technology community, participating in events sponsored by CleanTech San Diego, EcoTopics, and Cleantech Open San Diego, Walter has also been a presenter at numerous California Center for Sustainability (CCSE) programs. He currently serves as an adjunct professor at the University of San Diego School of Law where he teaches a course on energy taxation and policy.