BURNSVILLE, Minn. -- On a cloudy day like today, it might be hard to see the benefit of solar panels. But the Greeman family, of Burnsville, thinks solar panels could help the environment and nearly eliminate their electric bills.
Just one problem: their homeowners association won't allow it, saying the panels would interfere with the development's overall appearance and "architectural integrity."
"In fairness, we do live in an association and we do need to abide by those association rules," said James Greeman. "But I think that idea is a little behind the times."
The Greemans think Minnesota needs to pass a law that would ban associations from banning solar panels.
"People need to have the right to sources of energy that are there," Greeman said.
Such laws are becoming more common across the country. According to the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency, at least a dozen states have passed solar access laws.
"The more that homeowners begin to demand it, there's going to be more political pressure on the state to get involved," says University of Minnesota law professor Alex Klass.
A bill that would have prohibited homeowners associations from restricting installation of solar energy systems was introduced in Minnesota two years ago, but it never went anywhere.
Calls for Minnesota to pass such a bill have been reignited by recent tensions between some homeowners and associations.
"If this is something the state really believes in, then they need to back it up with a law that protects people," says Craig Wilson of Kandiyohi, a Minneapolis firm that specializes in renewable energy products.
But a change to Minnesota's law would face opposition from some community associations, which feel decisions are best made at the local level.
"I would think that many associations would like to maintain their right to regulate solar panels," said Michael Klemm, an attorney who chairs the Minnesota legislative action committee of the Community Associations Institute.
Klemm says when people purchase a home, townhome or condo with an association, they join a common interest community and accept the association's rules and regulations. Those associations often strive to keep a uniform appearance "for aesthetics and property values and marketability when people want to sell their units," Klemm said.
With townhomes and condos, Klemm says solar panels present issues over who should maintain the panels and what should happen to them after the owner leaves.
State Rep. Jeremy Kalin (DFL - North Branch) would rather deal with the solar panel issue without legislation. He wants to work closely with associations to dispel myths and make it easier for homeowners to get solar panels.
But he's willing to propose legislation, if necessary.
"Let's get rid of roadblocks that are in the way of people controlling their own energy destiny and trying to become more energy independent," Kalin said.
At the federal level, the U.S House version of the climate change bill includes a measure directing the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development to "issue regulations prohibiting restrictions on solar energy systems for single-family residential structures and requiring that applications for such systems are processed in the same manner as other architectural improvements."
But that proposal could change or be eliminated before the bill is voted on in Congress or signed by the President.
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