Installation of solar panels gets Lincoln condo owner in hot water

Bill would block homeowners associations from banning installation of solar installations

By: - February 23, 2023 6:52 pm
solar panels

Solar panels, installed on the roof of her south Lincoln condominium, got Rosalind Carr in hot water with her homeowners association. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — Concerned about the environment, in part after studying Pope Francis’ encyclical that climate change is real and that we must care for our “common home,” Rosalind Carr took action.

In October, Carr had 14 solar panels installed on the roof of her townhouse in the Cape Charles Square neighborhood of south Lincoln.

Rosalind Carr
Rosalind Carr (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

It wasn’t to save money, the retiree said, but “to do something good.”

The reaction, however, wasn’t that good from some neighbors and the homeowners’ association that governs the neighborhood.

The Cape Charles Square Homeowners Association ordered Carr to remove the solar panels, or the association would do it for her, because she hadn’t gained permission from the HOA board, as required in the local covenants, to install them.

The ruckus over the rooftop installation is just the latest nationwide over solar panels and HOA rules and helped prompt a state senator from Lincoln to introduce a bill this year that would block HOAs from banning solar installations.

‘Solar rights’ laws

Several states, including Colorado and Iowa, have passed “solar rights” laws. Iowa’s law allows for “solar access easements” for sunlight to such installations and permits local municipalities to enact ordinances that prohibit HOAs from blocking rooftop solar panels.

Sen. George Dungan said that the need for renewable, green energy continues to grow and that local covenants should not block the installation of solar panels, as long as they comply with local zoning ordinances and laws.

He said his Legislative Bill 49 isn’t patterned after another state’s law but is designed to encourage solar installations in Nebraska.

“It’s a small change for a big gain,” he said.

Several supporters of LB 49 testified Thursday before the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee. They told senators that solar energy is not only good for the environment but also would reduce the need for additional electric transmission lines as well as the use of fossil fuels to generate power.

Personal property rights

It’s also an issue of personal property rights, they said.

But opponents of the measure said LB 49 goes too far.

Justin Brady, a lobbyist for the Nebraska Realtors Association and homebuilders groups in Omaha and Lincoln, said that people buy homes based on the “private” covenants imposed in a neighborhood and that the state should not interfere.

Rick McDonald of the Metropolitan Omaha Property Owners Association said that the bill, as originally written, would give tenants the right to install solar panels on rental properties — installations that can damage the property.

State Sen. George Dungan III of Lincoln. (Craig Chandler/University Communication)

But Dungan, in his opening statement, said the intent of LB 49 was not to affect landlords and rental properties but to block HOAs from passing rules banning solar panels in neighborhoods.

Concerns were also expressed about a clause in LB 49 that would allow cites or counties to pass rules to provide a “solar access permit” to a landowner so that trees or buildings don’t block “direct sunlight” to the panels.

Opponents said creating such a “right to direct sunlight” was unconstitutional and could cause removal of trees that reduce air conditioning costs and provide other benefits. Even one supporter of LB 49 questioned the wisdom of removing trees.

Dungan said his intent is not to cause trees to be cut down but to allow local municipalities, if they wish, to issue solar access permits.

The Judiciary Committee took no action on LB 49 after the hearing. The bill received 20 letters of support and 49 in opposition.

‘Vitriol’ from some neighbors

Meanwhile, down in south Lincoln, Carr said she has agreed to remove the solar panels from her roof rather than force the HOA to spend money in court defending its covenants.

She said it was her fault that she didn’t get permission first. Carr said she had her application to install the solar panels ready for an HOA board meeting but then her contractors asked to move up the job by a month, giving her one day’s notice.

“I totally spun it off,” Carr said. “My fault.”

But, she said, she’s been disappointed by some neighbors’ negative reaction to the solar panels, which hug her condo’s roof and are only visible from the south side of the building.

“It’s like I put up a sign that I was selling sex,” Carr said of the “vitriol” from a small group of neighbors.

Ironically, the local HOA had passed some “guidelines” a month before she installed her solar panels that allowed them as long as the panels were not visible from the street. Carr said she was unaware of the guidelines until after she installed her solar panels and that an offer to move her installation was rejected by the HOA’s attorney.

She said it will cost about $3,500 to remove the panels, when weather permits. Carr plans to donate them to Habitat for Humanity.

LB 49 is designed to help resolve future conflicts between HOAs and homeowners wishing to install solar panels, and Carr said she hope it passes. If that happens, she may rejoin the movement to solar energy.

“I will tell you, I may just put them up again,” Carr said.

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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska state government and the state for decades. Previously with the Omaha World-Herald, Lincoln Journal Star and Omaha Sun, he is a member of the Omaha Press Club's Hall of Fame. He grows hops, brews homemade beer, plays bass guitar and basically loves traveling and writing about the state. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation.