Shervelle Marquina lives in the Thomasson Crossing subdivision in Triangle, Virginia. The graphic and web designer was attracted to the quietness of the neighborhood. Marquina really liked the corner lot house and the nearby school. After moving in, she began researching solar. She wanted to help the environment and her pocketbook. And with the program she signed up for, there were no upfront costs.
“That was really appealing to me, being that I’m a single mom, every penny counts,” said Marquina.
But when she put an application in to her HOA, she got a letter stating her request was against bylaws. According to Thomasson Crossing’s restrictive covenants, solar panels are limited to the rear yard and they must be concealed by an “approved privacy fence” -- which means they couldn’t be on the roof at all.
"I get calls from homeowners quite often, usually with complaints about the existing law," said Ken Jurman, solar energy program manager for the state of Virginia.
Jurman works on trying to expand solar access in Virginia, both residential, commercial and with the big utility companies. Jurman says while state law prohibits HOAs from completely banning solar panels, it can impose quote "reasonable restrictions."
"One person's reasonable, is another person's deal-killer," said Jurman.
HOAs often have restrictions so the panels aren’t visible from the road. But Jurman points out that if the back of the house faces north, it might not be the best place to get maximum exposure to the sun, reducing efficiency and output from the panels.
Since 2014, HOAs have blocked more than 300 solar installations in Virginia, according to the local chapter of Solar United Neighbors. They surveyed solar companies who estimate a loss of more than $6 million for the industry.
“I get emails at least on average once a week from a residential homeowner who says their HOA is blocking them from going solar. It is a substantial problem,” said Aaron Sutch, Virginia program director for Solar United Neighbors.
Sutch adds that HOAs often have legal counsel retained and can threaten lawsuits.
“And the challenge being is most homeowners or ever the industry doesn’t have the bandwidth or the financial and legal resources to push back,” Sutch said.
Pia Trigiani is an attorney specializing in Community Association Law and says covenants and restrictions are designed to limit the aesthetics of a community.
“I often suggest to folks, you really don’t look at your own home, you look at your neighbor’s home,” said Trigiani. .
But she adds restrictions should be reasonable. She collaborated with solar advocates on legislation brought forward in the General Assembly.
“We’ve worked hard with them and they’ve worked with us so it’s been a good partnership,” she said.
House Bill 414, introduced by Delegate Karrie Delaney of Fairfax, clarifies the “reasonable restrictions” HOAs can put on solar. The restrictions become “unreasonable” If it raises the cost of a solar project by 5% or decreases the efficiency by 10%.
For example, if the HOA requires solar panels to be somewhere that doesn’t get enough sun or requires building a costly fence to hide them.
“That was reached by meeting with stakeholders and understanding what are the costs of solar right and what are the kind of changes that these designers and installers are sometimes needing to accommodate that are unreasonable,” Delaney said.
Advocates hopes the bill decreases costly litigation and expands renewable energy options to homeowners. A companion bill was introduced in the Senate by Chap Petersen.
As for Shervelle Marquina, she was tired of waiting and went ahead and got the solar installed last summer.
“Most people don’t even know I have them up there, they blend pretty well with the rooftop,” she said.
After the HOA instructed her to take the panels down, Marquina went door-to-door in the 100 plus degree summer heat educating her neighbors about the solar restrictions. Now known as the “solar panel lady,” she got nearly half of the homeowners to sign a petition, enough to get the HOA to agree to hold a town hall to discuss changing the bylaws. That meeting is expected to take place in the coming weeks.
The Thomasson Crossing HOA did not respond to VPM’s request for comment before deadline.
Some homeowners and solar companies have had to hire lawyers to intervene. But Joe Ordia says the process usually goes smoothly. He’s the president and co-founder of PEG Solar and has worked with more than 100 homeowners in HOAs.
“Once we present the system owner and the homeowner’s association board with the figures, generally they’re very favorable towards the projects,” said Ordia. “Solar not only improves of the home its directly powering, but it also helps improve the values of the homes in the neighborhood as well.”