OAKVILLE • The controversy didn’t end after the Greycliff Homeowners Association wrapped up discussion on mailboxes, a rental property and the neighborhood clubhouse’s annual budget.
A family that chose to install solar panels without the approval of association trustees was in the room.
The decision by Teresa Barnes and her husband, Dr. John Tosi, to cover the roof of the house they bought with solar panels had come to this: a last-ditch effort to win a variance from trustees at their annual meeting held Tuesday.
Already, the fight between the homeowners and their neighborhood association in this south St. Louis County suburb has been simmering for months. Trustees say the family can mount the panels in the back of the house, but Barnes says that will only expose them to two or three hours of sunlight a day. The lawyers got involved, and Barnes began walking door-to-door to gather signatures of support within the roughly 180-home neighborhood.
“We’re just one of many families across St. Louis and Missouri fighting this battle,” Barnes said in an interview at the large home she and her husband plan to move to from Memphis, Tenn. “We wanted to make this work, and the next thing we knew, they had filed a lawsuit and my husband was served in front of his patients. What they want to do is more complex than what we have.”
The Oakville fight is one of several playing out in several regional court cases pitting homeowners against their property associations, exposing nasty rifts among neighbors over a technology expected to become more common in years to come.
At least 12 homeowners association disputes have scuttled a property owner’s plans for solar panels or wound up in court, according to solar advocate Frances Babb.
“The list of people who are experiencing problems is growing,” she said. “Really the only way you can solve this problem is to go to court and fight.”
Babb faced her own fight with the city of Clarkson Valley, in west St. Louis County, after she installed solar panels two years ago. But after winning that round last year, she was sued by her neighborhood association. Homeowners associations say it’s a simple matter of following the property indenture rules residents buy into. Babb’s association, the Kehrs Mill Estates Resident Association, is seeking damages even though at this point they may not be able to force her to remove the panels.
“We can’t have the homeowners running wild doing whatever they want,” said David Bender, an attorney for the Kehrs Mill association. “We need to pursue people who do not obtain the necessary approval.”
But unlike fence height and paint color, the national interest in renewable energy has gathered enough momentum to prompt state laws that overrule homeowners associations’ aesthetic sensibilities.
In Missouri, bills have been filed for the last several years to give homeowners the right to install solar panels. Several states have already enacted similar laws. In Illinois, state law has required homeowners associations to approve solar panel installations since 2011.
But with little movement in the Legislature, the legal conflicts between homeowners associations and residents may end up clarifying the question of solar panel rights in Missouri.
Stephen Jeffery, an attorney who has represented multiple homeowners fighting with cities and neighborhood associations over solar, said Missouri has a solar law, enacted in 1979.
“It gives their argument traction from the get-go,” Jeffery said. “There is a state law on the books, and has been on the books for 35-plus years, that says that solar energy is a property right.”
The question, he said, is whether it trumps property covenants that require architectural review but don’t specifically have provisions regarding solar installations.
“That’s an issue that is going to the courts, and there’s yet to be a definitive ruling on it,” Jeffery said.
One of his clients, Brian Hauge and Susan Hanley, recently won a case in St. Louis County Circuit Court. Their homeowners association, the Highlands of Chesterfield, appealed the case last month. Another case in St. Joseph may also soon be heading to the appellate courts.
At the Cliff Cave Branch of St. Louis County Public Library, where the Greycliff Homeowners Association met Tuesday, Barnes argued the 1979 solar law already gave their family the right to the panels over the trustees’ objections. But many attendees told her that the property covenants, which specifically reference solar panels, trump that law, and she shouldn’t have bought a house in the neighborhood if she didn’t like the rules.
“To quote the laws that you did is fine, but they aren’t the only ones that apply,” said Adam Vickery, a Greycliff trustee.
They declined to approve a variance. The two sides may settle the lawsuit soon.
Greycliff’s attorney, Todd Billy, said the law is on their side and requires trustee approval for solar panels.
“They never contacted the association, so we were surprised by it,” he said of the solar array.
But Billy, who specializes in community association law, is actually part of the effort to pass the Missouri legislation that would give homeowners more rights to install solar panels. As a member of the Heartland chapter of the Community Associations Institute, which represents neighborhood associations in three states, he helped draft the bill’s language.
“We have so many communities that do have this total prohibition (on solar panels),” Billy said, adding: “The ultimate underlying reason (for the legislation) is pure social benefit. … We’d rather be ahead of it than not.”
In the meantime, it could just take some more acceptance of a technology whose falling cost is increasingly within reach for many families. Even arrays that aren’t illegal, like Patrick Casey’s, can cause headaches for homeowners. His panels, already approved by city code inspectors, were cited by O’Fallon, Mo., 15 months later. A letter from the city said “it has come to our attention” that the panels were several inches too high from the roof’s surface.
And late last year, the Homefield neighborhood association drafted a new policy on solar panels. Casey is now facing a fine under the new policy — two years after he installed the array.
“We’ve gone through pure hell for the last two years because of trying to do the right thing and go green and cut our carbon footprint,” he said.
The Missouri legislation is Senate Bill 47.