Rick Freiman has a couple of reasons for wanting to put solar panels on his roof. They would save him money on his energy bill. But also, Freiman is a climate activist. He and his wife Deb want to shrink their carbon footprint.
The Freimans live in a subdivision in Portage. They got a couple of bids from solar contractors. One would have put 20 panels on the roof, “six over the garage and another 14 over the top of the house," according to Rick, and another would have placed 16 panels on the house.
The arrays would have used the dark, low-profile panels typical of modern solar installations. They would have lain flat against the roof with no visible wiring. Freiman didn’t think they would stick out.
“There’s skylights in some of these places,” he pointed out. “Those are things that are kind of rectangles that are on the roofs already, so why not these panels, which are just groups of rectangles?"
“Once they’re up there you really don’t notice them,” he added.
But Freiman’s homeowner association disagreed. Rick and Deb live in Woodbridge Hills, one of several developments governed by the Moors of Portage Association. In April 2019 the Freimans got a letter from the Moors’ Architectural Control Committee, rejecting the solar proposal.
“We are unable to approve your project as the aesthetics of these solar panels do not compliment [sic] the aesthetics of the neighborhood,” the Committee wrote.
The board wrote that “after much review and discussion,” it was “open to alternative options that provide greater aesthetic appeal such as Tesla Solar Shingles.” But while companies like Tesla have talked up solar shingles as an alternative to panels, in most places they remain a design concept rather than a product you can actually put on your roof.
Mark Hagerty, president of the contracting company Michigan Solar Solutions, says no solar shingle is currently for sale in Michigan – including the one made by Tesla. Where they can be bought, Hagerty added, solar shingles cost significantly more than panels.
Twenty-six states and the District of Columbia have laws that guarantee, to some extent, association residents' ability to install solar projects, according to HOA trade group the Community Associations Institute. But in Michigan, HOAs can turn down solar arrays at their discretion or make them challenging to pursue.
Joseph Hess of Meridian Township in the East Lansing area says his HOA told him he could put up solar panels, but only if Hess paid a lawyer to write a solar policy for the whole association.
Hess thought the HOA should pay the fee. “But they wouldn’t budge,” he said. “They said ‘No, you’re the first one to ask for it and so you’re going to have to pay for it.’”
Hess says that set him back a few hundred dollars. Walter Goff of the Sapphire Lake Homeowners Association said the HOA did pay some fees for the project.
Hess got his panels installed. He says two more residents now have their own arrays and he expects more to follow. But Hess says it shouldn't be this complicated for people to switch their homes to renewable energy.
“The future of our planet depends on it, so it’s a critical issue,” he said.
Hess would like to see lawmakers step in. One bill in the statehouse’s 2018 session would have stopped HOAs from stopping renewable projects. The sponsor was Democrat Sheldon Neeley, who is now the mayor of Flint. Neeley’s bill didn’t go anywhere. But it did get the attention of Kevin Hirzel of Hirzel Law in Farmington.
“We represent hundreds of associations all over the state of Michigan,” Hirzel said.
Hirzel opposed Neeley’s bill, which he said was too broad. Hirzel added that residents who disagree with an HOA’s decisions have remedies. They can run for the board or try to change the leadership on a committee.
“Community associations, they’re fundamentally democratic societies, so what’s going to be allowed in the community association is really going to be up to the members of that community,” he said.
But Freiman said it’s not that simple in Woodbridge Hills, where the Architectural Control Committee seems to have been set up as a kind of dynasty, according to a document that Freiman shared with WMUK. It states that two of the three founding members of the ACC, or their “survivors,” can choose their replacements.
“Really, there’s no argument. They have final say and that’s it,” Freiman said.
The Moors of Portage did not respond to requests for comment. Hirzel said it’s not typical for architectural committee members to have that much power.
After he learned of Neeley’s bill, Rick Freiman reached out to Democratic Representative Jon Hoadley of Kalamazoo. Freiman wanted to know if Hoadley would support a bill protecting renewable projects within HOAs. Hoadley said he’s troubled that associations would block residential solar projects.
“We need to make sure that we are providing some reasonable assurances for individuals, even if they’re in an HOA to make some of these types of investments,” he said.
But Hoadley says he doesn’t know of any current efforts to legislate a change.