NEWS

Colorado HOAs warm to solar gear, energy-saving residents

Date: Jun. 18th, 2009
Contact: Kevin Simpson Phone: 303-954-1739

Even though he had spent $27,000 on materials, Tom Davis didn't panic when the Highlands Ranch homeowners association denied his plan to install solar panels atop the pergola that frames his patio.

For one thing, a newly reinforced state statute had tipped the law in his favor. As he pressed his case, he found the HOA careful but curious — and ultimately willing to let him move forward.

"They were extremely progressive — more so than what I hear people telling me about their HOAs screaming and yelling," said Davis, an airline mechanic who's venturing into a second career in solar energy.

Relations aren't always so amicable between energy-minded homeowners and the HOAs that police them.

Despite a 30-year-old law that prohibits neighborhood covenants from barring solar-energy devices on aesthetic grounds, Colorado homeowners associations often rejected them anyway. But since the law was broadened and strengthened in August, HOAs must take a more tolerant view.

"There will still be disputes, but the wave has washed over us," said attorney Suzanne Leff, whose firm counsels community associations along the Front Range.

HOAs aren't completely hamstrung and homeowners don't have carte blanche. There's still skirmishing as environmental technology evolves and forward-thinking homeowners and community watchdogs test the limits of the law.

Clotheslines covered

The current law prohibits unreasonable restrictions on solar and wind-electric generators, plus a variety of shade structures, garage or attic fans, evaporative coolers, energy-efficient outdoor lighting and retractable clotheslines.

Chris Pacetti, chairman of the legislative action committee of the Community Associations Institute, said the tug of war over a proven technology like solar is basically over.

"Homeowners associations that have their leadership involved and paying attention to what's going on, they're being proactive and making the changes they should be making," Pacetti said. "Others think the rules don't apply or aren't paying attention; they'll need to be dragged kicking and screaming into the process."

State Rep. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, introduced House Bill 1270 in the 2008 session and has heard from a lot of grateful homeowners since it became law.

"But I also did get some feedback from people, both my constituents and others around the state, that their particular HOAs basically lawyered up or went straight for some loopholes they thought they could find," he added. "We did anticipate that, to at least a small degree."

The original 1979 law told HOAs, the overseers of neighborhood uniformity and property values, they couldn't restrict solar-energy devices solely because they didn't like the way they looked.

Some HOAs simply ignored the law. Or they theoretically allowed solar devices, but under conditions that made them technically or financially burdensome to install.

As the public became more attuned to environmental issues and energy costs spiked, more and more homeowners embraced high- and low-tech efficiency measures — anything from solar to wind turbines to rolling shutters to clotheslines. Government began offering incentives for energy efficiency, and suddenly "green" made sense.

That didn't help Wayne Svenson, owner of All-American Rolling Shutters in Lakewood. He sells a device that promises significant energy savings, but it seemed HOAs wanted no part of his product, an exterior-mounted shutter that rolls down to cover windows for more efficient heating and cooling.

So he called Kerr and planted the idea for HB 1270, which broadened the old law by protecting not just solar but several energy-efficiency measures from the whims of HOA covenants. Associations can still exercise "reasonable restrictions," but not if they significantly increase cost or reduce efficiency.

"For 15 years, people were told no," Svenson said. "Once they got wind of that bill, they called up and said, 'I understand we can do this now.' I've been swamped ever since."

Kerr acknowledges that it eventually may take a lawsuit or some legislative fine-tuning to more clearly define those reasonable restrictions.

Meanwhile, technological advancements have made energy-saving solutions like solar more visually palatable, even as other options, like wind turbines, still pose logistical challenges.

Highlands Ranch, where nearly 30,000 single-family homes come under the eyes of the development's community associations, has seen about a 30 percent increase in applications for renewable-energy systems since HB 1270 became law, according to Mike Bailey, the supervisor of covenant compliance and assistance.

"We did very minor tune-ups once (the law) passed," Bailey said, noting changes to policies on shading structures and window tinting. "We anticipated the solar aspect of things to really grow. You could tell this was the wave of the future, the next chapter."

Homeowners who want to pursue energy-efficiency measures still must submit to architectural review. But Bailey said that while the committee might offer suggestions, the reinforced law has "made us cautious about where we're restrictive" — and so far the association hasn't denied an application.

Davis, the airline mechanic intrigued by the possibilities atop his pergola, had done his homework.

The latest technology in double-sided panels would soak up the sun from above his southern exposure and even catch the rays reflected by his patio or fallen snow. The see-through panels, coupled with an array on his roof, would shrink his electric bill to about $12 a month — and look good doing it.

"The technology was so new to us, we had to do due diligence," Bailey said. "Mr. Davis has enlightened us, too."

Weather station a no-go

Like more and more homeowners, Scott Bunker has joined the trend toward environmental responsibility. If he had it to do over again, he said, he'd go solar on his Castle Rock house — and may yet if he can put together the seed money.

But he's venturing onto a different frontier.

With a vast, 6,500-square-foot backyard, he has focused his efforts on things like using recycled mulch and minimizing his water use.

After learning about mini weather stations at a town-sponsored class, he purchased a unit, perched it near his back fence and hooked it up to his sprinkler system. The unit, which resembles a large food processor with a weather vane, takes moisture, sun and wind readings and then transmits the data wirelessly to a controller that parcels out the minimum amount of water that his lawn requires.

But Bunker recently gave in to his HOA's objections and took it down.

"When I did that," Bunker said, "I felt like a soldier taking down his American flag."

He has already contacted Kerr's office in the hope that an even more expansive law might give environmentally conscious homeowners more leverage.

"I think that fits under the umbrella that people should be able to conserve, energy or water, on their own property," Kerr said. "Homeowners associations shouldn't be able to restrict being a good steward of the environment."