Power struggle: Residents and homeowners associations clash over solar panels

Power struggle: Residents and homeowners associations clash over solar panels

For Lillian Mezey, installing solar panels on the roof of her family’s home wasn’t just about saving money—“We just care a lot about environmental issues,” Mezey says.

That’s part of the reason Mezey was so frustrated when the homeowners association that governs her neighborhood rejected her request to install the panels. Mezey, a psychiatrist at UVA, lives in Old Trail, a sprawling development just south of the Crozet town center. 

Last year, Mezey had two local solar companies, Sigora and Altenergy, appraise her home for a panel installation. Both recommended the same placement—on the south-facing roof, in the front of the house.

However, the Old Trail HOA’s rules only allow solar panels on the back of the house, so it denied Mezey’s request. 

Altenergy then devised an alternate layout that would produce a similar amount of energy, but it would cost 15 percent more—a $3,000 increase. “The Plan B was going to be less efficient and more expensive,” Mezey says, “so we just chose not to do it at that time.” 

Mezey isn’t the only prospective solar owner in Virginia who has been stymied by an HOA. Aaron Sutch is the Virginia Program Director of Solar United Neighbors, a group that seeks to help individuals install panels through bulk-purchase programs and other initiatives. They’ve facilitated 830 solar installations since 2014.

“In every jurisdiction,” Sutch says, “we undoubtedly have issues where homeowners associations block solar installations for the people in their communities.”

Sutch feels that aesthetic concerns—that solar panels are unattractive—are  misplaced. “The current state of the technology is totally different than what they may imagine,” Sutch says. “Anecdotally, we see HOAs that think solar is still what it looked like in the 1980s.” 

At Old Trail, Mezey sought to amend the HOA rules. She gathered “35 to 40” signatures from neighbors, she says, and sent a letter to the property manager, Allen Billyk, requesting a loosening of the rules. That was in August.

“The first time, he said it’s under consideration, and the second and third time I checked in I just got radio silence. I haven’t heard back,” Mezey says. “Part of the frustration is that we haven’t gotten a good explanation from anybody.” 

Billyk tells a different story. “It wasn’t declined,” he says of Mezey’s application.

For Billyk, Mezey’s initial proposal was an obvious breach of HOA guidelines. “If you drove by there, you would immediately see her house like wow, that doesn’t make sense,” Billyk says. “It’s just not a house set up for it. Part of these things are to protect people from themselves.”

And he says solar panel placement hasn’t been a problem for other residents of the neighborhood. Billyk wasn’t moved by Mezey’s petition, which he describes as “20 signatures in 700 houses.”

“This is the only one in the five years I’ve worked here that has become a newsworthy situation,” Billyk says. 

In Virginia, HOAs are not legally allowed to ban their residents from installing solar panels outright. But they are allowed to impose “reasonable restrictions” on their placement. The code never specifies what “reasonable” means, however. “It’s really nebulous language,” Sutch says.  

The Old Trail case falls into the murky zone left by that unspecific language. Matthew Gooch is a Richmond-based lawyer who works with environmental law and regulatory agencies, including HOAs.

“That’s right there in the gray area that might or might not be reasonable,” Gooch says of the Old Trail situation. “I can’t tell you for sure what a court would do there.”

Other states have more concrete guidelines. California law, for instance, specifies that an HOA-mandated change that would cost $1,000 or more would be considered an unreasonable increase on a proposed plan.

In the Old Trail case, Billyk questions Mezey’s assertion that the alternate plan—at $3,000 more—represented a significant cost increase. “When you’re investing $20,000 over 18 years, that doesn’t seem that prohibitive.”

When asked whether HOAs ever prevent residents from installing solar, Chris Poggi, the Charlottesville branch manager at Altenergy, immediately recalls Mezey’s situation. 

“HOAs—they have a lot of power, man,” Poggi says. That’s especially true when they control areas as large and affluent as Old Trail. The neighborhood currently consists of more than 700 homes, and the developers hope to build hundreds more.

“It just sounded fishy all around,” Poggi says, recalling Mezey’s case.

Poggi wonders if  Mezey’s Altenergy proposal was rejected because the developers have a deal with Sigora.

Billyk says that Old Trail does not have an official partnership with Sigora, although he estimates the company has done 90 percent of the solar installations in the neighborhood, and that leads to more business through word-of-mouth.

Regardless of the reason for the rejection of her proposal, Mezey feels that any resistance to solar panels is misplaced, given the current political climate and the need for sustainable energy.

“I’m less focused on my house right now and more on the idea that there’s a major development in Albemarle County where the HOA has a restriction on where you’re allowed to put solar panels, in this day and age,” Mezey says. “We talk a lot about personal choice. If somebody wants to do this, they should be able to do it.”

 

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els
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els

Many climate-action actors are demanding ‘new rules’ – without prior consensus building – and unfair strategies _ to inequitably burden some and inequitably benefit some – to suit their ideological value system(s) about climate action: e.g. having tax payers pay for electric-vehicle charging stations (that transfers wealth to privileged elites who can afford electric vehicles); e.g. demanding that everyone else in the 700-household community like what they like and want what they want regarding solar-energy architecture. Our County Task Force – working as part of the County’s Winter to Summer ‘Climate Action’ series – discussed various ways in which HOAs… Read more »

Chris
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Chris

This was a person wanting to put solar panels on front of their house instead of the back? How is that imposing on anybody and rural people? This seems like a personal property rights issue – ie can you put solar panels on your roof where it makes most sense (ie $$) or not?

els
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els

Your question should go to 1. that HOA (Home Owners Assn), and any other HOA (perhaps there is one where you live? or in your neighborhood? They are very powerful. 2 County BOS (Board of Supervisors) who should get County staff to research all the different and many HOA in the County, on these questions. 3. County Attorney or other attorney, regarding what a jurisdiction (here, Albemarle County) can require of HOA in the jurisdiction. Regarding the interests of rural homeowners: most of them are strong advocated of ‘rights’ to do on their own property, and would not like the… Read more »

Rob tribal
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Rob tribal

Don’t buy a home in an area run by an HOA.
You know they will object to nearly everything, you
hear it all the time…

Denis Oudard
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Denis Oudard

Back in 2008, I got the OK from my HOA to install a solar hot water system on my house. When one drove up to the house it was in full sight. I invited many people to come and see my installation. The first question I would ask when they came in the door was: ‘Did you see the collector?’ None, and I had lots of visitors, have ever noticed it. I would then take them back out and walk the street they had just driven. The reaction was always ‘How did I miss that?’ My point is the aesthetic… Read more »

Jack
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Jack

Ms. Lillian Mezey is clearly in the wrong here. What the article and Ms. Mezey failed to state was the obvious. The obvious is that when she decided to purchase a home in Old Trail, she knew there were HOA regulations. Additionally, she received HOA documents stating what was allowed and what is not. Either she chose not to read them or simply thinks she could do what she wants regardless of the agreed to rules. Now, she’s upset that she can’t get her way. Here’s a suggestion, if you don’t want HOA regulations, don’t buy in a community with… Read more »

Mike Judge
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Mike Judge

It would be good to know how many houses in Old Trail have solar on the roofs.

Deborah Wyatt
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Deborah Wyatt

Crozet’s Old Trail HOA denies homeowner’s solar panels? — “Part of these [decisions] are to protect people from themselves,” says manager Billyk. So glad Billyk is looking out for stupid people wanting to use solar. Hope they sue. Even assuming the HOA regs allow Old Trail’s denial, which I wonder about, the solar panel law, allowing “reasonable restriction” for solar panels, but not refusal, would support homeowner in my opinion. Denial contravenes intent of the statute (or, in this case, refusing to allow the panels on the side of the house with the sun). And a successful suit would be… Read more »