He put solar panels on his roof. Now his HOA wants them removed

Solar advocates, installers say new protections for Georgia homeowners are needed
Portrait of Alex Betancourt as solar panels on the roof are shown in background at his home, Friday, March 24, 2023, in Suwanee. Alex Betancourt put solar panels on his roof last year. He received letters from his HOA claiming the panels were an architectural addition that violated the community's rules. Now, they're threatening to remove the panels from his roof. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Portrait of Alex Betancourt as solar panels on the roof are shown in background at his home, Friday, March 24, 2023, in Suwanee. Alex Betancourt put solar panels on his roof last year. He received letters from his HOA claiming the panels were an architectural addition that violated the community's rules. Now, they're threatening to remove the panels from his roof. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

When Alex Betancourt and his family moved from Buford to nearby Suwanee in 2021, the house they purchased checked all of their boxes. Good schools, a desirable neighborhood and plenty of space for his wife and five kids.

And the roof of the home — unobstructed by trees and facing south — was ideal for solar panels.

Betancourt’s homeowners association, however, shot down his plan to install panels on the back roof of his home facing away from the street, saying the array did not conform to “community standards.” Betancourt moved forward anyway, and at an appeal hearing held months after his panels were installed, his request was denied again.

An attorney for the Deer Valley Community Association sent a letter last month saying a $25 daily fine would be assessed against the couple until the panels are taken down. In the same letter, the attorney said the association reserved the right to enter Betancourt’s property and remove the panels.

Most homeowners don’t pursue solar projects without their HOA’s permission, as Betancourt did. But experts say the situation highlights simmering tensions between homeowners who want to add clean energy systems to their homes and strict neighborhood covenants. Solar advocates say state legislation is needed to protect homeowners from HOA overreach.

Aerial photograph shows solar panels on Alex Betancourt’s roof in Deer Valley subdivision, Friday, March 24, 2023, in Suwanee. Alex Betancourt put solar panels on his roof last year. He received letters from his HOA claiming the panels were an architectural addition that violated the community's rules. Now, they're threatening to remove the panels from his roof. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

The association has not made good on its threat yet, but Betancourt said the entire saga has been stressful.

“We don’t want this looming over our heads,” he said. “We don’t know if I’m going to go to work one day and I’m going to get a call from my wife saying, ‘Hey, some guys are putting holes in the roof and ripping off our solar panels.”

Exactly how many Georgia homeowners find themselves in similar situations is difficult to quantify. There are an estimated 2.2 million Georgians living in communities governed by HOAs, and solar advocates and installers say they regularly see clients’ solar dreams squashed — or slowed to a crawl — by burdensome HOA approval processes.

“It happens every day,” said Don Moreland, the executive director with the Georgia Solar Energy Association. “Every single day, homeowners are being denied by their homeowners associations from putting solar on their home.”

With generous tax breaks and energy costs rising, Moreland and other clean energy proponents say they expect more interest in rooftop solar in the coming years from customers seeking to control their power bills. Especially in sunny Georgia, solar is seen as a critical way for the state to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and to help limit climate change.

They say new laws are needed to protect individual property rights and the rooftop solar industry. Without legislation, even more conflict is possible on the horizon.

A conflict over aesthetics

In Georgia and across the country, HOAs wield considerable power in neighborhoods, especially when it concerns property owners’ decisions that affect the appearance of their homes.

Moreland said he hears a common refrain from associations about rooftop solar: The panels aren’t aesthetically pleasing and will harm the “look and feel” of the neighborhood.

Others claim solar hurts property values, he said, despite evidence to the contrary. Several studies over the last 15 years have found homes with rooftop solar sell for thousands more than those without panels.

Bette Holland is a resident of Chestatee, an upscale golfing community in Dawson County at the northwest end of Lake Lanier. She’s heard both reasons from her HOA in her multi-year quest to gain approval to install rooftop solar.

Chestatee’s covenants mention solar panels, stating that no systems can be installed “unless they are an integral and harmonious part of the architectural design of a structure.” What’s considered integral and harmonious is at the sole discretion of the community’s architectural review committee.

Holland said the HOA initially denied her request, then said it would consider changing the covenants if she could get 50 other Chestatee residents to sign petitions stating their interest in solar.

Alternative Energy Southeast employees Lauren Minter, lower left, Aaron Basto, center left, and Russell McCune, right, installs eighteen solar panels to the roof of a resident Tuesday, June 7, 2022, in Ellenwood, Ga. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

About six months later and after mailing hundreds of hard copies to neighbors, Holland has received 48 signatures. But even if she gets more than 50, she says there’s no guarantee the HOA will change its rules. The Chestatee Community Association did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Holland, who has worked for years on conservation and climate issues, says the ordeal has been discouraging, but she remains hopeful.

“I am an activist, so I know that a lot of these things take time,” she said.

Solar installers feel the pinch

Kaveh Kamooneh, the chief operating officer at Atlanta-based residential and commercial solar installer Better Tomorrow Solar, said he often gives presentations to HOAs to help clients gain approval. But unless the panels are going on the roof facing the street, he said he is usually able to assuage concerns.

Still, Kamooneh said HOA pushback has created headwinds for his business, estimating his company loses 5% to 10% of its potential projects as a result. The actual impact could be even larger, he said.

“It’s hard to estimate because I only get the people who come to us and then are denied,” Kamooneh said. “I don’t know how many don’t even think about it because they know their neighbor was denied. So, it’s significant.”

Kamooneh said one of the biggest issues he sees are HOAs leaning on broad architectural control covenants to deny solar projects.

Aerial photograph shows solar panels on Alex Betancourt’s roof (middle lower) in Deer Valley subdivision, Friday, March 24, 2023, in Suwanee. Alex Betancourt put solar panels on his roof last year. He received letters from his HOA claiming the panels were an architectural addition that violated the community's rules. Now, they're threatening to forcibly remove the panels from his roof. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

That’s the case in Betancourt’s neighborhood — Deer Valley’s covenants make no specific mention of solar.

Julie Howard, an attorney representing Deer Valley, said Betancourt’s panels do not comply with the community-wide standard because they “significantly alter the exterior appearance and aesthetics of the home.”

Howard added that the community’s covenants “prohibit any exterior construction, alteration, or addition unless approved in advance by the Association.” Betancourt’s decision to install solar without the board’s approval violates those covenants, she said.

‘End this amicably’

Many states have passed laws that bar HOAs and other neighborhood associations from blocking solar projects, but Georgia has not.

A bill proposed in the General Assembly earlier this year would have kept HOAs from prohibiting rooftop solar in most cases, but the legislation failed to clear the House or Senate before the session ended.

While Georgia ranks among the top-10 states for total solar installed, most of that capacity is in the form of massive arrays owned or operated by utilities — not residential rooftop systems. Moreland and others say HOAs are not solely to blame for the state’s lagging rooftop solar penetration, but it is a significant factor.

Kamooneh said he thinks legislation is needed to protect individual property rights.

“The sun’s rays are a natural resource that comes to your house and I don’t think other people should be able to deny you access to that,” he said.

In the meantime, Betancourt and others continue to navigate the current landscape.

Alex Betancourt is watering a newly planted tree as solar panels on the roof are shown in the background at his home on Friday, March 24, 2023, in Suwanee. Alex Betancourt put solar panels on his roof last year. He received letters from his HOA claiming the panels were an architectural addition that violated the community's rules. Now, they're threatening to remove the panels from his roof. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Deer Valley has indicated it would consider approving Betancourt’s solar panels if he uses a screen or cover to shield them from view. But Betancourt says doing so would render them useless. The board also said it might be amenable to solar shingles instead of solar panels, but those are far more expensive.

Betancourt and his attorney recently submitted a proposal to the board to install fast-growing privacy trees around the back of his home to keep the panels out of sight. He said he has not gotten a response yet.

“My goal is to end this amicably where I give them some sort of remediation or resolution like the landscaping plan so this doesn’t go to court,” Betancourt said. “We’re trying to avoid that.”


Solar costs and incentives in Georgia

  • Federal solar tax credits: 30% (applies to panels, wiring, labor and more)
  • State solar tax credits: None
  • Georgia Power residential solar rebates: None
  • Average cost for a 6-kilowatt system
    • Before tax credits: $18,540
    • After tax credits: $13,720
  • Rooftop solar customers generally have lower electricity bills, but savings vary based on their utility, payment plan and energy use.

A note of disclosure

This coverage is supported by a partnership with 1Earth Fund, the Kendeda Fund and Journalism Funding Partners. You can learn more and support our climate reporting by donating at https://www.ajc.com/donate/climate/

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