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Misguided Homeowner Association Restrictions Block Pennsylvania’s Solar Potential

By Caroline Weiss, Legal Intern

Lately, homeowners are coming across unlikely opponents to their solar ambitions. In states without solar access legislation, new restrictions are being implemented by homeowners associations. 

For “aesthetic” reasons, HOAs all too often prohibit installation of solar panels on homeowners’ rooftops. Even when they lack solar bylaws, HOAs can be reluctant to have conversations with their members about the possibility of solar in their neighborhood. 

Restrictions can sometimes be quite unfair or illogical: solar panels may only be allowed on the side of the roof that is not visible from the street— thus often disregarding the fact that solar panels are more effective on south-facing roofs. Preventing homeowners from installing solar on their own properties also limits potential benefits such as higher property values, lower electricity costs, and non-polluting renewable energy. In fact, homes with installed solar can, on average, sell for 4 percent more than properties without solar systems, according to Zillow. These reasons are why many are calling for changes to solar-restricting practices.

Ohio recently addressed these concerns with legislation that grants extra protections for individuals who install solar panels on their own property. Ohio’s Senate Bill 61, passed June 14, 2022 and in effect since September 13, 2022, specifically applies to homeowners in condominiums and planned communities, who are subject to HOA regulations. Under this bipartisan bill, homeowners are permitted to install solar panels unless explicitly prohibited by the HOA declaration, as long as one of the following conditions apply: 

  • The condominium unit includes the roof (as defined in the declaration), thus the owner is responsible for costs related to the roof, or 
  • The declaration expressly permits solar panels and “establishes responsibility for the cost to insure, maintain, repair, and replace such devices.” 

HOAs can still retain the ability to establish “reasonable restrictions” on solar panel size and placement, which may differ for each community. While this law clearly does not grant full rights to homeowners to install solar as desired without restrictions, SB 61 is a positive change from prior Ohio law, which allowed HOAs to prohibit solar entirely.

Ohio State Senator Nickie Antonio spoke last month about her reasons for supporting SB 61. Sen. Antonio had seen firsthand the benefits of solar in her own neighborhood and had heard stories from frustrated homeowners who were subjected to solar restrictions. Leader Antonio said that the bill’s success in Ohio was derived from luck, timing, and relationships, as well as the time in which it was considered: over the course of two general assemblies, there was ample time to educate members to garner support. 

This type of education is especially important as we see more and more anti-solar sentiment being promoted, sometimes perpetuated by the oil and gas industry. For example, misconceptions of solar have been expressed by Pennsylvania leadership, resulting in stalled pro-solar legislation and the introduction of anti-solar bills—such as Senate Bills 275284, and 792. Each piece of legislation is a clear attempt to manufacture concerns to raise fear, uncertainty, and doubt about solar. In Pennsylvania, local cities, townships and boroughs have the ability to regulate solar through municipal zoning ordinancesA Penn State Dickinson Law review of 2,500 local ordinances revealed, however, that only 13 percent of municipalities addressed solar of any kind in these codes. Some municipal ordinances make it harder for solar to be sited than, say, a gas-fired power plant.

Lack of solar access is a problem in Pennsylvania as well. Tony Ranieri, founder and president of Ohio solar installation company Solar is Freedom, also spoke to the benefits of solar for the energy economy in his state. Ranieri said that his business and that of other solar installers increases substantially with solar access legislation. As more homeowners are granted the opportunity to go solar, their choice to do so reduces grid pressure and overall cost per kilowatt-hour of energy.

Ohio's neighboring success highlights Pennsylvania’s lack of solar access legislation. Senate Bill 826, introduced by Senator Katie Muth in July 2021, would ensure that HOAs permit solar panel installations. This bill is still awaiting a vote, unfortunately. With every session that our legislators fail to take action to protect homeowners’ property rights, our state falls even further behind on advancing home rooftop solar’s potential. HOAs’ solar restrictions should be curtailed all across the Commonwealth. Doing so would advance equity in property rights and allow homeowners the ability to enjoy greater environmental and economic benefits.

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