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.”