North Carolina Supreme Court affirms homeowners’ right to install rooftop solar
Nothing in the restrictive covenants of Rana and Thomas Farwig’s homeowners’ association mentioned solar. So, when the couple installed solar panels on the roof of their home in Raleigh, North Carolina, they had every reason to be surprised when their homeowners’ association denied approval of the panels.
After all, North Carolina’s General Assembly passed a law in 2007 specifically to protect homeowners. Known as the Solar Access Law, it guaranteed homeowners’ right to install solar panels by prohibiting any deed restrictions or covenants that would interfere with their installation or use, with just a few narrow exceptions.
For too long, North Carolina homeowners lived with uncertainty about whether our solar access law would protect their right to go solar if opinions on their respective homeowners’ associations swung against it.Senior Attorney Lauren Bowen
But in the years since its passage, North Carolina homeowners’ associations have interpreted the Solar Access Law unevenly. North Carolinians who should have been able to go solar have been unfairly denied by their homeowners’ associations, prevented from lowering their utility bills or reaping the rewards of homegrown energy.
That all changed this month when North Carolina’s Supreme Court provided some much-needed clarity by ruling that HOA provisions granting broad discretionary authority to architectural review committees cannot be used to prohibit solar panels under the Solar Access Law.
The ruling makes a big difference for the approximately 40 percent of North Carolina homeowners who live in a neighborhood governed by a homeowners’ association — more than 14,000 homeowners’ associations in all, many of them created after 2007 when the Solar Access Law was passed.
Prior to the North Carolina Supreme Court’s ruling, these homeowners’ associations were the single biggest obstacle to installing rooftop solar in the state despite the clear environmental and economic benefits of solar, including increasing home values in the neighborhoods that HOAs serve.
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In the Farwigs’ case, their homeowners’ association fined them more than $50,000 and threatened to foreclose their home. Its opposition to solar isn’t unusual. Some homeowners’ associations are concerned that solar panels will reduce property value, even though the opposite is true: rooftop solar actually increases home values by an average of $15,000. In fact, North Carolina even exempts the increase in property value due to rooftop solar from property taxes.
Other homeowners’ associations have such byzantine, unpredictable approval processes that homeowners simply give up. Some solar installers have developed entire corporate divisions dedicated to helping homeowners navigate their homeowners’ association, but even with their help, homeowners who try to obtain their association’s approval often face an uphill battle that can drag on for years.
The North Carolina Supreme Court’s ruling is a significant step forward for homeowners who have been previously hamstrung by their homeowners’ associations.
“For too long, North Carolina homeowners lived with uncertainty about whether our solar access law would protect their right to go solar if opinions on their respective homeowners’ associations swung against it,” says Southern Environmental Law Center Senior Attorney Lauren Bowen. “The North Carolina Supreme Court has affirmed the right to go solar under the law, and homeowners can now be confident their decisions to go solar will not be denied arbitrarily.”
The ruling won’t just benefit homeowners: when single households install solar, all North Carolinians reap the benefits. By supplying low-cost renewable energy, rooftop solar reduces demand across the entire electric grid, lowering energy prices for all customers and decreasing long-run infrastructure costs.
This decision will reduce a significant barrier to the residential solar market in North Carolina, supporting jobs in the rooftop solar industry, and helping homeowners lower their utility bills and clean up the grid.Peter Ledford, North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association
Rooftop solar is also a meaningful bulwark against the skyrocketing price of oil and gas. As utilities pass the price of their risky investments in fossil fuel-related infrastructure on to customers, the price of energy generated by solar remains stable because its “fuel” is free, mitigating variability for customers and reducing climate-warming carbon pollution.
And of course, in North Carolina, rooftop solar is a particularly powerful engine for local job creation and economic development. Over 200 solar companies have directly invested more than $10 billion in North Carolina. The industry is directly responsible for more than 6,000 jobs in the state.
The majority of those jobs are devoted to residential installations on homes like the Farwigs’ — installations that, in the past, too many homeowners’ associations have sought to block.
“The ruling issued by the North Carolina Supreme Court is a significant achievement for homeowner property rights in North Carolina, affirming access to clean, renewable power for those previously denied by their homeowners’ association,” says Peter Ledford of the North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association, which SELC represented in an amicus brief on behalf of the Farwigs. “This decision will reduce a significant barrier to the residential solar market in North Carolina, supporting jobs in the rooftop solar industry, and helping homeowners lower their utility bills and clean up the grid.”