Legislature weighs whether to stop associations from preventing energy-saving devices.

By Asher Price

Monday, Feb. 7, 2011

John Thoppil's homeAtop a Hill Country bluff where builders have cleared land for his half-finished 6,000-square-foot home, John Thoppil says that he and his wife moved to Austin’s outskirts because they "like the environmental attitude here."

But when Thoppil wanted to add solar panels to his Travis County home to power a water heater, he was met with disapproval from the Caslano homeowners association.

In January, the association’s architectural control committee rejected the panels because they would be visible to neighbors.

The dispute comes as lawmakers propose measures that would stop homeowners associations from interfering with owners’ efforts to erect solar devices, as long as they are on a roof or in fenced-in property.

"I think it’s really very reasonable," said Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, one of at least three state senators to file such a proposal. "I don’t have much patience for those sorts of nit-picky rules."

Similar proposals failed in the previous session, but so did most bills, as a few controversial measures gummed up the 2009 Legislature.

There’s precedent for the Legislature to pass the proposal: A 2003 state law authored by Rep. Robert Puente, D-San Antonio, prevents property owners’ associations from prohibiting water-saving measures such as installing rain barrels or implementing efficient irrigation systems.

But the Wentworth measure is likely to face opposition as long as it allows homeowners an unrestrained right to put up the panels, said Greg Cagle, a lawyer who represents homeowners and associations and has written the book "Texas Homeowners Association Law."

"I don’t think there’s a significant opposition to homeowners having the right to have solar panels so long as they are erected and constructed in a manner consistent and harmonious with the community and not obtrusive," Cagle said.

But in the dispute at the Caslano subdivision, one person’s harmony is another’s cacophony.

The letter to Thoppil from the architectural control committee reads: "Based on the information submitted, on-site review, and consultation with neighbors we have determined that the proposed placement of these panels makes them visible from neighboring properties and community common areas and we, therefore, must reject this request."

Sandy Denton, a spokeswoman for Texas Community Association Advocates, which represents homeowners associations and homebuilders, among others, echoed Cagle. "We certainly are supportive of solar panels and other energy-saving devices, but we support the concept that associations should have the right to establish guidelines for aesthetics purposes," Denton said. "Solar panels placed anywhere could be detrimental to property values."

Thoppil, an OB-GYN in Cedar Park, said that any legislative relief would come too late for his house as it nears completion.

He said he and his wife, a Round Rock pediatrician, who have a 1-year-old child, are building an energy-efficient house. "Hydrocarbons cause damage to our environment," he said. The back patio with the deep swimming pool is an easy place to forget about the 25-minute commute to work in his BMW convertible.

Thoppil said his car is more energy-efficient than most, that it was hard to find an attractive piece of land near the medical centers, and that he and his wife are building a large home to house a large extended family, which spends as much as half the year with them.

"We respect their job in protecting the neighborhood," Thoppil said of the architectural control committee, "but we differ with them on what’s aesthetically pleasing."

asherprice(at)statesman.com; 445-3643

Who makes the rules?

A homeowners association is an organization including all the homeowners of units in a development. The association often has an elected board, which collects fees, maintains common areas and enforces the group’s rules.

A deed restriction, also known as a restrictive covenant, places legal limits on land developments and persists even if the land is sold. Some are simple, and others are very specific. Homeowner advocates recommend that buyers ask a title company to check what – if any – deed restrictions exist on property they might buy.


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