You Are My Sunshine: Clotheslines and Solar Panels in Community Associations
Spring has sprung and summer is here. Longer days allow us to spend more time outdoors, and the sun can help homeowners power their homes, dry their clothes, and grow their gardens. Community associations may be looking to their covenants to dictate if, and in what fashion, homeowners can install solar panels and use clotheslines. Associations should know that the answer may lie beyond their covenants, and an association’s power to restrict may be more limited than initially thought.
Both Maryland and Virginia have laws relating to the installation of solar panels.
In Virginia, an association may prohibit an owner from installing solar energy collection devices only if the association’s recorded declaration establishes such a prohibition. If not, the association may not prohibit solar panels, but may establish reasonable restrictions concerning the size, placement, and manner of installation.
In Maryland, associations may not impose unreasonable restrictions on the installation of a solar collection system, provided that the property owner owns or has the right to exclusive use of the roof or exterior walls.
Again, in both states, associations should consider what is deemed an unreasonable restriction. An unreasonable restriction may be one that significantly increases the costs of the owner’s solar collection system or significantly decreases its efficiency.
In Maryland, association governing documents may not prohibit a resident from installing or using clotheslines on a single-family property. Meaning that regardless of any restriction in the association’s covenants, if an owner chooses to dry their clothes outside on a clothesline, regardless of any limitations in the governing documents, the association must allow them to do so.
The law allows associations to adopt “reasonable restrictions” on the dimensions, placement, and appearance of clotheslines for purposes of aesthetic value and restrictions for protection of person or property in the event of a fire. For example, a reasonable restriction may only allow clotheslines in the backyard instead of the front yard for aesthetic purposes. Associations should proceed cautiously because if the restrictions effectively prohibit clotheslines, they likely won’t be considered reasonable. Additionally, any restrictions adopted must be in an open meeting with prior notice to association residents.
While the Virginia legislature considered similar legislation, the bill ultimately failed.
What Should Our Community Do to Ensure Compliance with Applicable Law?
1. Consult with Counsel
Associations should consult with counsel on these issues. In addition to solar panels and clotheslines, there are also laws regulating restriction of satellite dishes, flags, etc. These issues are legislated in various jurisdictions making it necessary to review federal, state, and county law. It is also important for the association and counsel to review the association’s governing documents to ensure that the association isn’t enforcing provisions that run contrary to the applicable laws creating unnecessary litigation.
2. Adopt Regulations Appropriate for Your Community
Regulations and restrictions placed should be considered in conjunction with the type and needs of each community. For example, in Virginia, while associations may ban clotheslines, if demand is high and aesthetics aren’t hindered, associations may wish to allow clotheslines. In Maryland, associations should consider what is reasonable for each community, as limiting clotheslines to the backyard may be feasible to one community, but may not be practical in others.
3. Stay Updated and Informed
Laws continuously change, and each legislative session brings with it bills that could further restrict an association’s ability to enforce its covenants. For example, during this 2017 legislative session in Maryland, a bill was introduced which would have limited an association’s ability to restrict backyard gardens. While the bill received an unfavorable report, these bills are on the horizon, making it important to stay informed. In addition to consultation with counsel and community managers, CAI is an excellent resource. CAI offers educational classes, and the CAI website has an advocacy section where you can find legislation, by state, on various issues, including clotheslines and solar panels.
Ruth is a community associations attorney at Lerch, Early & Brewer in Bethesda, MD. She co-chairs the Chapter’s Maryland Legislative Committee and serves on the Quorum Editorial Committee. For her efforts, she has been named a “Rising Star” by both Washington Metropolitan Chapter Community Associations Institute and Maryland Super Lawyers.