Calif. homeowners divided over solar panels

Some residents file lawsuits to install devices

By Catherine Saillant
Los Angeles Times / December 13, 2009

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LOS ANGELES - Ready to chuck his electric bills, Camarillo, Calif., resident Marc Weinberg last year asked his homeowners association for permission to put solar panels on his roof.

When the Spanish Hills Homeowners Association said no, Weinberg sued the group. Under the state’s Solar Rights Act, he argued, a homeowners association cannot unreasonably block solar installations.

Weinberg won, and the homeowners association was ordered to not only permit the solar panels but also to cover the tens of thousands of dollars that Weinberg spent on legal fees. Since last fall, when he installed a double row of matte black panels, three other homes in the hilltop neighborhood of luxury estates have added panels.

“We didn’t set out to be green activists,’’ said Weinberg, 39, a real-estate lawyer . “That’s not where we’re coming from. We honestly looked at it from a financial standpoint.’’

Whether motivated by pocketbook or environmentalism, similar battles between homeowner groups and property owners are cropping up in California and other states as the installation of solar energy systems becomes more affordable and utility costs rise.

Homeowner boards insist that they are protecting property values by enforcing rules that govern everything from paint color to how early trash bins can be set out for collection. But residents say their right to invest in alternative energy trumps the sensibilities of neighbors who don’t like the way the panels look.

Results of the battles have been mixed even as the nation is being urged by the Obama administration to embrace alternative energy.

Marty Griffin, a Santa Clarita homeowner, put solar panels up despite his homeowners association’s rejection of his application. The Tesoro Del Valle Homeowners Association sued him, and in early November a jury told Griffin the panels should be moved to a more discreet area of his property.

Solar installer Bradley Bartz earlier this year threatened a Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., community group with legal action after it denied three clients permits to install solar panels. He filed a claim against the city of Torrance, Calif., after it rejected another client’s application. In all four cases, Bartz prevailed.

Homeowners’ main defense is the Solar Rights Act, adopted by California in 1978 to protect consumers’ right to install solar energy technology. The law makes it difficult for homeowner groups to reject solar energy equipment unless it creates a safety hazard or a modification can be made without great cost.

Now solar advocates are pushing for a federal version of the California law. Energy legislation that moved through the US House of Representatives earlier this year included a provision that would make it illegal for HOA rules, leases or private contracts to prohibit the installation of solar systems.

It is uncertain whether the Senate will keep the language in its version of the bill, said Raymond Walker, a government-affairs spokesman for Standard Renewable Energy, a Houston-based solar installer. As debate continues, solar industry advocates are forming a lobbying group, Walker said.

Industry officials say fewer regulatory hassles would speed the growth of jobs and move the nation closer to energy independence. “We want to make this into a real industry, and we’re trying to make sure the regulatory landscape is clear so this can take off,’’ Walker said.

Homeowner and community groups haven’t taken a position on the bill yet. Community Associations Institute, an education and advocacy group based in Alexandria, Va., said such “green issues’’ arise regularly in the estimated 300,000 community groups nationwide. The institute advises striking a balance between conservation and aesthetics, said spokesman Frank Rathbun.

Advocates say those who invest in alternative energy should be applauded, not punished. They ultimately benefit ratepayers by reducing demand on the power grid, said Adam Browning of Vote Solar, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that promotes the use of solar energy.

“It’s somebody doing their part to reduce peak load,’’ Browning said. “That’s the most expensive electricity utilities have to buy.’’

California two years ago launched a $3.3 billion effort to increase the use of solar energy statewide, offering rebates and tax credits to consumers who install solar energy systems. Since then, the number of homes and businesses with the systems has more than doubled, growing from 23,000 in 2006 to 52,700, according to the California Public Utilities Commission.

Property owners who install panels can sell excess energy to the power companies for credit on their monthly bills.