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SAN JOSE, Calif. — Ilam Mougy wanted to green up his condominium with solar power.
The 49-year-old software engineer won approval to install panels on his home from utility Pacific Gas and Electric Co. and the city of San Jose. He expected little trouble from the local homeowners association since another neighbor had an array on his roof. He was wrong.
The association claimed ownership of the roof and ordered all the panels removed. Mougy was fined $300 and the cost of fixing the red clay tiles.
He was baffled: “I wasn’t trying to upset anyone.”
Despite state laws limiting the control that homeowners associations have over solar installations, green advocates say the groups are a steady challenge to extending the systems to more residential rooftops.
The disputes pit two powerful and growing forces against each other.
Investment in solar installation in California last year topped $11.7 billion, a 66 percent jump from the previous year, according to industry figures. The spread of small residential and commercial arrays has spurred industry expansion to an estimated 54,000 employees across the state.
On the other side, California has 43,300 community associations, second only to Florida, according to the trade group Community Associations Institute. About 7.2 million Californians — roughly 1 in every 5 — live in communities governed by a homeowners association, or HOA. Some types of property, such as condominiums, give homeowners associations greater control.
At stake is the expansion of the solar market into more residential communities. Solar installers say the time and costs of completing a lengthy HOA application can delay construction by months, eat up a project manager’s time, and ultimately frustrate homeowners and kill demand.
“It’s death by 1,000 cuts,” said Randy Zechman, CEO of San Jose-based Clean Solar. Zechman said he’s even considered a surcharge on construction involving HOAs because of the increased management costs.
Real estate managers say the governing boards look out for the community’s greater good. John MacDowell, vice chairman of the state Community Associations Institute, said homeowners receive association guidelines and restrictions — from paint colors to lawn maintenance — when they buy their house.
When it comes to solar installation, he said, “homeowners actually have extensive rights.”
State lawmakers established the California Solar Rights Act in the 1970s and regularly have updated the law. The act limits the restrictions an HOA can place on solar installations. A board can’t reject an installation for aesthetic reasons. Last year, lawmakers made it harder for community organizations to alter construction plans, stating that a board cannot call for modifications that increase construction cost by $1,000 or reduce the efficiency of the system by greater than 10 percent.
But the law and its application often remain muddled. The trade group California Solar Energy Industries Association cited these examples of complaints within the past four months:
An association in Orange County requested a $5,000 deposit on an application to install one residential system.
A community group in a Sacramento suburb asked a family to screen the solar array with a lattice fence, then denied the application.
A doctor in another affluent Sacramento suburb had his system rejected because of “aesthetic concerns.”
Bernadette Del Chiaro, executive director of the state solar energy association, said the complaints often are about the appearance of panels and can be resolved. But the message that state lawmakers have sent “time and again” is still ignored or unknown to some HOAs, she said.
Glenn Procter, a vice president of Slingshot Power in the Silicon Valley city of Los Altos, said some installers refuse to work in HOA communities. The community board adds another decision maker in the process, making it more complicated, he said. But it can occasionally work to an installer’s advantage. For example, a group of his customers persuaded an entire 12-unit condominium complex to go green.
Convincing a homeowners association to approve renewables takes longer, but he said, “it’s going to become a really good market soon.”
MacDowell, of the associations institute, said the industry group is willing to do more education on the issue. “We’re certainly not taking any active steps to change the Solar Rights Act,” said MacDowell, who also monitors legislation for the group. “We’re at the right balance now.”
In his San Jose complex, Mougy remains disappointed. He had filed the plans with the association but didn’t immediately hear back. He then went ahead with construction. “I was very keen on following the rules,” Mougy said.
He and his neighbor removed their solar panels last month. As far as Mougy can tell, the roofs atop the 500 condominium units in his neighborhood are panel-free.
Susan Hoffman, community association manager for the HOA, said the solar issue was more complex. The structures and common areas are owned by the association. The community, not the homeowner, has discretion about what goes on the roof, she added.
Hoffman said the property had been in a legal dispute, settled this month, that called for no alterations to common property.
“The association is not against solar,” said Hoffman, who also manages other green-friendly properties. “Looking at solar for all the buildings is a reasonable approach.”
The HOA has plans to repair the tile roofs and look for a solar company to install panels across the entire neighborhood, she said.
Within a year, Hoffman said, Mougy could have solar panels back on his roof.
©2015 San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)
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