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When “Going Green” Isn’t Attractive – MD Court of Special Appeals Determines HOA Architectural Committee May Impose Reasonable Limitations on Solar Panel Installation

Background

A unanimous three-judge panel of the Court of Special Appeals in Blood v. Stoneridge at Fountain Green Homeowners Association, 2019 Md. App. LEXIS 736, issued useful guidance to Maryland’s homeowners’ association (“HOA”) community concerning an HOA’s ability to limit a homeowner’s placement of solar panels.  In this case, husband and wife homeowners in a single-family residential development in Harford County installed solar panels on the front and back portions of their roof.  Here, the HOA, like most across Maryland, had an architectural review committee to enforce certain aesthetic standards in the neighborhood.  Per the HOA’s Declaration of Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions (the “Declaration”) all homeowners, prior to adding, changing or altering their property, must seek and obtain the HOA’s approval.  Unfortunately, prior to the installation of the panels, the couple failed to seek the necessary permission from the HOA. 

Notably, the HOA’s architectural review committee had established a precedent of permitting solar panel installation on the back roof of one’s home, but did not allow front roof installations.  Accordingly, as a result of the homeowners’ decision to install panels on the front roof, the HOA sought an injunction directing them to be removed.  The trial court agreed with the HOA’s remedy and entered judgment in their favor.    

On appeal, the homeowners, flouting the necessity of coordination with the architectural review committee, sought the protections of Maryland’s pro-solar energy law – §2-119(b) of the Real Property Article (“RP”) to maintain the solar panels on the front of their home. In its opinion, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals provides helpful commentary to homeowners and HOAs alike in addressing the boundaries of reasonableness when reviewing solar panel installations. 

Takeaways from the Decision

At the outset of its decision, the Court of Special Appeals acknowledged the environmentally progressive policy of Maryland and highlighted that for over 15 years the Old Line State has been “avowedly pro-renewable energy and pro-solar energy.”  The court further recognized that the statute at issue was passed by the General Assembly in an effort to thwart barriers to solar installations, which included unreasonable restrictions imposed by HOAs. 

Getting to the meat (err tofu?) of this environmentally conscious statute, RP § 2-119(b) prohibits restrictions on land use that “impose an act or impose unreasonable limitations on the installation of a solar collection system,” and defines “unreasonable” to “include a limitation that significantly increases the cost of the solar collection system; or significantly decreases the efficiency of the solar collection system.”  Applying this statute, the homeowners argued that the HOA’s restriction of solar panels to their front roof was an “unreasonable limitation” forbidden by Maryland’s pro-solar statute – RP § 2-119(b) because such a restriction reduced the size and generating capacity of their system. 

The court, in reviewing the facts, emphasized that the HOA was amenable to the homeowners’ installation of solar panels on the rear roof of their home, but prohibited the solar panels on the front of the home.  Noting the consistency of the HOA’s architectural review committee concerning its rear-roof-only policy, the Court determined that the HOA’s aesthetic and scale limitation did not impair the system’s efficiency or increase its cost significantly.   Moreover, the court offered no sympathy for the homeowners’ regrettable prerogative to install first and ask permission later and opined that the homeowners’ “wounds are self-inflicted.” 

This decision is important as it highlights that Maryland law expressly allows HOA’s to impose reasonable limitations.  In the summation of its decision, the court steered clear of making any pronouncements concerning an HOA’s aesthetic judgment and ruled that the HOA’s policy of restricting solar panels to the rear roofs of houses was indeed reasonable and did not run afoul of Maryland’s pro-solar law.  

Conclusion

Contrary to the adage that “it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than it is to get permission” the court’s opinion extolls the virtues of acquiring approval before unilaterally undertaking any significant alteration to one’s home in an HOA.  Despite the frustrations we all may have with HOAs from time to time, HOAs are in place for the benefit of the entire community to ensure a tasteful level of appearance uniformity.  After all, who wants to live next to a neon pink house or see your neighbor’s conspicuous boat on blocks as you pull into your driveway each day? 

In response to this decision, we would recommend that homeowners have advance communication and coordination with their HOAs to avoid enforcement actions and potential litigation.  As this opinion illustrates, restrictive covenants are not to be taken lightly, and even environmentally conscious statutes designed to “go green” will not avoid an HOA’s reasonable command to “take it down.” 

Keith O. Hinder, Jr. is an associate attorney in the Real Estate Department representing clients in commercial real estate matters and real estate litigation, assisting clients in developing legal strategies to avoid litigation whenever possible.

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