Homeowners associations in Michigan now have to allow rooftop solar

This coverage is made possible through a partnership with Grist and Interlochen Public Radio in Northern Michigan.

People who want to install solar panels on their roofs have to consider a lot: sunlight, cost, and coordinating with contractors and utilities. Tens of millions of people across the country also have to think about their homeowners association. 

In Michigan, a new law aims to remove that barrier by telling homeowners associations, or HOAs, they have to allow rooftop solar. 

The Homeowners’ Energy Policy Act was signed by Governor Gretchen Whitmer on Monday. 

“We wanted to find a way to … empower homeowners to make those decisions themselves,” said Ranjeev Puri, a Democratic state representative from Canton Township in southeast Michigan and the bill’s main sponsor. “I think that this is an important step for a lot of people.”

The law gives many HOA members the power to install rooftop solar and an array of other energy-saving measures, from clotheslines to heat pumps. HOAs also have to adopt a solar energy policy within a year, and they can’t enforce standards that increase the cost of installation by more than $1,000 or decrease energy output by more than 10 percent. 

It doesn’t apply to shared roofs and common areas, so multifamily housing and some condominiums are not affected by the legislation. 

HOAs are becoming increasingly common; over 75 million people belong to one, according to the Foundation for Community Association Research. 

Supporters say Michigan’s new law is a step toward making rooftop solar more accessible to many of the 1.4 million HOA members in Michigan.

“We thought that this was a very important bill, because there are thousands of homeowners associations across the state,” said John Freeman, the executive director of the Great Lakes Renewable Energy Association. “From our point of view, it was completely absurd that … by moving into a neighborhood which is governed by a homeowners association’s agreement, that homeowners would not be able to install solar on the roof in order to generate their own electricity and to help reduce carbon pollution.”

Michigan is lagging in overall solar energy capacity, coming up 26th in the nation. With this legislation, it joins over two dozen other states that have some form of “solar access laws,” including neighbors like Illinois and Wisconsin, which aim to reign in an association’s say over solar in their community. 

HOAs generally seek to maintain a neighborhood’s property value by enacting and enforcing rules, called codes, covenants and restrictions. Along with providing maintenance and other services, HOAs can use these rules to shape a neighborhood’s aesthetic, such as requiring houses to be a certain color or gardens to look a certain way. Violations could result in fines or even foreclosure

And their rules can prevent people from pursuing climate friendly practices, like planting native species and switching to more sustainable energy systems, adding to the logistical and financial barriers to residential solar.

Dan Kramer, a biology professor at Michigan State University, co-authored a 2022 study in the journal Landscape and Urban Planning on how homeowners associations hinder — and help — sustainable residential development in mid-Michigan. 

“They could be bridges to more sustainable residential development rather than barriers, as they are now,” he said. “And it just takes a little change, I think, of perception and maybe a little bit more open thinking on the part of HOAs.”

Kramer started researching HOAs because he had wanted to build a house in mid-Michigan, something small and energy efficient with renewable energy and no big, turfgrass-covered lawn.

“I kept running into this problem that my house is too small, or my plan to use solar panels or my plan to do the landscaping that I wanted was unacceptable to the HOA, and so I would just have to keep looking,” he said. “This happened repeatedly in my own kind of personal search for land to build a home.”

Some HOAs do support sustainability efforts. For instance, associations in Arizona have promoted desert-friendly landscaping and regulated water use. But Kramer said the cases they reviewed in mid-Michigan were rare. 

“I don’t think that HOAs have any kind of anti-environmental or anti-sustainability agenda,” he said. “I think it really is more tied to the idea of a neat and tidy neighborhood. And that’s related to home value.”

Opponents of the new law worry that it’s eroding the rights of an association to determine what happens in their community. That includes the Community Associations Institute, a national organization that advocates for HOA interests. 

Attorney Matt Heron, a co-chair of the institute’s Michigan branch, said the law could also complicate maintenance and repair of roofs.

“You’re going to have communities that may lose their insurance because they’re not going to have the ability to insure everything,” he said. He thinks it would have been better to encourage rather than mandate energy efficiency measures. 

Under the law, HOAs do have some say in these projects, like limiting their height and appearance on the roof. And some associations were already accommodating solar, like the Ashland Park No. 1 Association in Traverse City, which has worked to get a system in place for residents that want solar panels. 

“We just didn’t think it was a smart move to try to limit people right now, when the government’s … trying to push renewables,” said Ben Brower, the association’s president. Brower said they’re going to pay close attention to what they still have control over moving forward: “We don’t want it to blight or make the property look bad and hurt the values of the neighboring properties.”

The landscape for solar in Michigan is changing; last November, the state passed a law requiring all of its electricity to come from “clean” sources by 2040, and it now allows more people to sell electricity from residential solar back to utilities. Federal incentives have also helped make it more affordable.

Michigan is “playing a lot of catch up” in solar power, said Allan O’Shea, the CEO of CBS Solar, a solar installation company based in the northern Michigan village of Copemish. He has worked in the solar industry for decades, and while he’s had some good experiences with associations, there have also been problems.

“We had an issue where they actually adopted a new law in the middle of [the process] to prevent solar from going in. And those are fighting words,” he said. “Not so much for us because we had to walk away from the project, but it really damaged the homeowner, the condo owner.”

For O’Shea, this law is part of that change; some of the customers unable to install solar because of HOA restrictions are planning to take up their project again. 

“It’s going to continue to normalize solar energy as another form, another power source that needs to be let into the mix,” he said. 

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Homeowners associations in Michigan now have to allow rooftop solar on Jul 11, 2024.

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