North Carolina high court sides with rooftop solar owner over HOA

The Raleigh house before and following the installation of solar panels. That case has been brought before the North Carolina Supreme Court. Credit: Blue Raven Solar/ Courtesy

By Elizabeth Ouzts, Energy News Network

The bipartisan 4-3 ruling could have a significant impact on thousands of developments across the state. “It opens the door to a good chunk of people” who may have previously been denied approval for solar projects, one installer said.

In a case that could impact thousands of planned developments across North Carolina, the state Supreme Court on Friday sided against a Raleigh homeowners association and in favor of one of its residents — allowing him to keep rooftop solar panels that have been a source of contention since 2018.

“Blue Raven Solar cannot be happier with the Court’s decision,” the company said in a press release. “As the solar contractor that installed the solar system at issue, we are vindicated in our support of our customers and in our fight to make rooftop solar available and affordable to everyone.” 

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The bipartisan 4-3 opinion settles a long-running dispute between HOAs, would-be solar owners, over the meaning of a 2007 law on solar access. This gives planned communities less power than many have claimed to be able to deny rooftop solar. 

“This decision will reduce a significant barrier to the residential solar market in North Carolina,” said Peter Ledford, general counsel of the North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association, in a news release. 

Though its rules don’t mention solar, the Belmont Community Association had argued an exception in the law gave its architectural committee broad authority to prevent panels visible from the street. 

On the other side, Tom Farwig — joined by rooftop solar companies, clean energy advocates, and the state’s attorney general — had contended that the law required any HOA ban on street-facing panels like his to be explicit. 

The Court of Appeals had agreed with Belmont, citing the law’s legislative history and its title to conclude the legislature wanted to give homeowners associations wide power to regulate solar. 

But Justice Robin Hudson, a Democrat, said the lower court needn’t have looked beyond the text of the statute to determine that it intended for HOAs to make any restrictions on solar clear. 

“The Court of Appeals contravenes our rules of statutory interpretation by applying canons of construction where the plain meaning of the statute is clear,” she wrote in a majority opinion, joined by two other Democrats, Justices Sam Ervin and Anita Earls, and Republican Justice Tamara Barringer.

Another exception in the law allows HOAs to move solar panels so long as the new location doesn’t prevent their “reasonable use.” But that doesn’t apply to Belmont, either, Hudson ruled, since panels on the back, north-facing side of Farwig’s home would lose about half their productivity. 

“We hold that the restriction at issue here does have the effect of prohibiting the installation of solar panels and the reasonable use of solar panels and, accordingly, the exception contained in subsection (c) of the statute does not apply,” Hudson wrote.

Over 14,000 HOA communities are home to 25% of North Carolinians, and 40% of homeowners. The court’s decision could provide new clarity in potentially thousands of these post-2007 developments. In order to prevent street-facing solar panel placements, homeowners associations must now include this clause in their covenants. 

Bryce Bruncati, director of residential sales for 8MSolar, estimates his company alone has 30 to 40 would-be customers each year who are denied approval even though their HOA rules don’t reference solar. He said that the ruling was a significant step for them. 

“There are now dozens of our clients who are excited to get the ball rolling on their solar projects,” he said. “It opens the door to a good chunk of people.”

Still, installers and advocates say the 2007 law could be further improved by eliminating the ability to limit street-facing solar altogether and specifying that HOAs can’t dictate any placement that would cause more than a 10% drop in productivity. House Bill 842, which passed in the House last year, is now eligible for the Senate. 

But, says the sustainable energy association’s Ledford, the bill would only apply to the hundreds of new HOAs formed each year, not those established since 2007. For the latter category, the court’s ruling is crucial.

“The North Carolina Supreme Court has now affirmed the right to go solar under the law,” said Lauren Bowen, senior attorney and leader of Southern Environmental Law Center’s Solar Initiative. “Homeowners can now be confident their decisions to go solar will not be denied arbitrarily.”