If you are reading this, you are probably someone who is in favor of generating clean, renewable energy from sunlight. But that doesn’t mean everyone is. Around the country, homeowners are getting into legal disputes with neighbors, homeowner associations and local zoning officials.
A report in St. Louis Today tells about the travails of Teresa Barnes and her husband, Dr. John Tosi, of Oakville, Missouri. They recently sold their house in Memphis and bought a home in the 180-house development known as Greycliffe. When they had solar panels installed, the Greycliffe Home Owners Association (HOA) sued Barnes and Tosi, saying the provisions of the community regulations specifically prohibit solar panels within the community without approval from the trustees of the HOA. Those trustees say the family can mount the panels on the back of the house but Barnes says that will only expose them to two or three hours of sunlight a day.
The couple argues Missouri passed a law in 1979 that specifically states solar energy is a property right and the law trumps the terms of the community regulations. But the HOA counters their master agreement specifically references solar panels and so it takes priority over the state statute. It has refused a request by Barnes and Tosi to amend the master agreement.
Solar advocate Frances Babb faced a similar dispute with the city of Clarkson Valley in west St. Louis County after she and her husband installed solar panels two years ago. She won in court only to be sued by her neighborhood HOA. “The list of people who are experiencing problems is growing,” she said. “Really the only way you can solve this problem is to go to court and fight.”
At present, there are 12 such disputes working their way through the courts in and around St. Louis. Homeowners associations say it’s a simple matter of following the property indenture rules residents buy into. “We can’t have the homeowners running wild doing whatever they want,” said David Bender, an attorney for the Kehrs Mill association. “We need to pursue people who do not obtain the necessary approval.”
In an odd twist, Todd Billy, the attorney representing the Greycliffe HOA, is also working to pass new legislation that would clearly take precedence over community regulations so disputes like this one would not happen in the future. “We have so many communities that do have this total prohibition (on solar panels),” Billy said, adding: “The ultimate underlying reason (for the legislation) is pure social benefit.… We’d rather be ahead of it than not.”
The Missouri legislature has yet to act on the bill, however, and Billy says without it, the law is on the HOA’s side and requires trustee approval before solar panels can be installed. “They never contacted the association, so we were surprised by it,” he said of the solar array Barnes and Tosi had installed.
It’s not only HOAs that are pushing back against solar arrays. In nearby O’FAllon, Missouri, Patrick Casey had solar panels installed on his home with the approval of the city’s building code officials. 15 months later, he got a letter from the city said “it has come to our attention” that the panels were several inches too high from the roof’s surface.
Shortly after that, the HOA for the Homefield neighborhood where he lives drafted a new policy on solar panels. Casey is now facing a fine under the new policy — two years after he installed the array. “We’ve gone through pure hell for the last two years because of trying to do the right thing and go green and cut our carbon footprint,” he said.
The lesson from all this controversy is that not everyone embraces the coming age of solar. Before you arrange for a solar panel installation, make sure you have the necessary permits and permissions, especially if you live in a planned community with a homeowners association. The cost of legal representation can be far more than the price of your entire solar system if you get embroiled in a dispute.