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Bringing an aesthetics issue to light

Wedgewood resident John Wood would like to install solar panels on the roof of his home, and while the city encourages residents to pursue alternative energy improvements Wood's homeowners association denied his request recently. Staff photo by Hank Long

John Wood doesn't consider himself a green revolutionary or an environmentalist.

The airline employee, husband and father of two just wants to be a good neighbor.

That's why over the last several weeks Wood, a resident in the Wedgewood neighborhood, has been trying to educate his neighbors on his plans to install solar panels on the roof of his home.

He's also been seeking their approval, as Wood's home belongs to one of Woodbury's largest home owners associations with a membership of nearly 1,000.

"It's been a tougher process than I'd like it to be," Wood said last week as he was awaiting word from the Wedgewood Homeowners Association board on whether it would allow him a special consideration to install the solar panels he is hoping to lease through a Twin Cities-based start-up company, FreEner-g.

Wood later found out the board, made up of other Wedgewood residents, denied his request, which has left him somewhat frustrated, but understanding of the role of a home owners association, or HOA, which has become more common in residential developments across Woodbury over the last two decades.

"I do think the whole way through this process I had a chance to raise some awareness and education about how far solar panel technology has come. But it's a little frustrating, because sometimes it's kind of like 'How can you have the authority to tell me what I can and can't do with my house?'," he said.

That's a topic that has been gaining some momentum as of late, as HOAs have become more prevalent in Woodbury, and as the sustainable technology for homes, such as solar panels or geothermal heating and cooling systems, have evolved in recent years.

City, HOA stances differ

The city of Woodbury has taken a proactive stance in the last few years that encourages residents to make green improvements to their homes.

The city's 2030 comprehensive growth plan contains a housing section that states the city supports and encourages "the use of construction techniques and materials that produce enduring quality, promote energy and resources conservation, waste reduction and recycling."

The city is also currently working on development of an alternative energy ordinance that planning staff say will help more clearly define how sustainable technologies such as solar and wind power can be utilized within the city's zoning ordinances.

Currently the city has no such code on solar panels, said Dwight Picha, director of the city's community development department.

But regardless of the city's stance on the matter, the HOAs can still have the final say on any such home improvements, per the contractual covenants that came along with a home owner's purchase agreement, said Woodbury senior planner Melissa Douglas.

Just about the only time the city will have any authority over an HOA in how its governs its covenants is when they are working with the developer on the declaration of covenants to ensure they include provisions to allow the city to perform maintenance of stormwater facilities or other types of facilities related to the cities codes and ordinances, Douglas said.

"But the things that relate to aesthetics or what uses are allowed or not, we view that as a private agreement among private parties. We generally don't enforce those types of issues."

An issue of aesthetics

When the Wedgewood HOA board recently denied Wood's request to have solar panels installed on the roof of his home, it wasn't because they didn't like the idea, said board president Al Rudnickas.

"I think that there maybe a case, where if (Wood) modifies his original design somewhat, he could get board approval," Rudnickas said. "Of the residents who commented on his proposal, most people were concerned about the aesthetics; and those who were more supportive said they would support it as long as it looked nice."

The association doesn't even have a covenant that specifically prohibits solar panels, although the Wedgewood HOA architectural standards, which were developed in the 1980s does state that solar panels are not allowed, he said.

"I think our existing standards are really the byproduct of the last time we had solar mania in the late 1970s and 80s when you had technologies that were rushed to the market," Rudnickas said, referring to the often, large, upright or tilted solar panels that some homeowners had installed.

"I think we've obviously seen the technology come a long way in the last 20 years, and I do believe that this is something that we as a homeowners association need to get ahead of as the technologies do become more aesthetically pleasing and less expensive for homeowners to install."

That time is now, said Girardo Ruiz, the CEO for FreEnr-g, which received a subsidy from Xcel Energy to assist the company in its solar panel lease program which it hopes to contract with more than 1,000 homes, churches and schools in the Twin Cities over the next few years.

Expensive up front

Generally it costs upwards of $50,000 for a homeowner to purchase and install a solar panel system to provide electricity for their home, Ruiz said. A lease program would significantly reduce the upfront costs of using solar energy, he said.

"The hard part for the residents in the homeowners association, is that they almost always have to get approval before they can contract with us," Ruiz said. "So that's the education part of this process, that's the challenge John (Wood) is facing right now. But we think that it's simply an education issue and that over time we'll see (HOAs) beginning to modify their bylaws and covenants to make it easier for residents to install solar."

Developing trend?

While the Wedgewood HOA board plans to continue to work on the solar panel issue, another neighborhood is considering moving forward with a change to its covenants to allow solar panels on roofs.

In May the Evergreen Countryhomes HOA will vote on an amendment to its covenants to allow roof-mounted solar panels. The only catch is that that the language of the amendments states that at least 12 homeowners must come to the HOA board as a group with a request install the solar panels. The Evergreen Countryhomes HOA is made up of 72 twinhomes, and the provision would allow for a sense of aesthetic continuity, said board president Jim Dailey.

"We do have very tight aesthetic requirements in our association, but that's because of the nature of our neighborhood," Dailey said. "Still, we're encouraged by the possibility of this ordinance. We see that more affordable, cleaner looking solar panel technology is on the horizon and as a board we wanted to get ahead of the issue."

Rudnickas said the nearly 1,000 home Wedgewood HOA will also need to, at some point, get in front of the issue that Wood's proposal for his home has brought some momentum to.

"I think that we do have to keep talking about this, and realize that John is not going to be the only one to ever approach the board with a request to install solar panels," Rudnickas said. "It really is an evolutionary process and what we have in place right now is the product of a bad experience 20 years ago. We recognize the times have changes and the technology has improved to make solar panels more aesthetically pleasing. The trick is now find a way incorporate those changes into our architectural standards."

Wood hopes the board moves sooner to make those changes than later.

"Really, when it's all said and done, with the cost of the installation, am I going to save a ton on the reduced electrical bills? No," Wood said. "I'm just looking to do something that I think is good for the environment, something that at some point here in the near future is going to be a pretty reliable source of energy for many more people. But for that to happen, we're going to need more of a wide spread acceptance by these homeowners associations."

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