UPHILL BATTLE: Jury says no to unorthodox solar panel placement at a master planned community in Santa Clarita, Calif.
Courtesy Greenburg Glusker UPHILL BATTLE: Jury says no to unorthodox solar panel placement at a master planned community in Santa Clarita, Calif.

The boundaries of homeowner protection under California’s 30-year-old Solar Rights Act may have been curtailed a bit by a jury verdict in November that enjoined two owners living within a master planned community in Santa Clarita to remove solar panels they had installed on an embankment adjacent to their house.

The HOA for the 1,100-home Tesoro del Valle on March 25 sued owners Martin and Carolyn Griffin after they proceeded with their plan to install 300 square feet of solar panels on the side of a hill that runs down to a public sidewalk.

The HOA had rejected the Griffins’ original application, which they submitted in October 2007, to install 900 square feet of panels. Ricardo Cestaro, the HOA’s attorney, tells Builder that the association wanted the Griffins to confine the installation to the roof of their 4,000-square-foot home. Attorneys for both sides confirm that the panel salesperson had convinced the couple that the only practical solution for that many panels was to put some of them on the hill.

The Griffins did not return phone calls from Builder requesting comment. But Martin Griffin told the Los Angeles Times that he and his wife—a chiropractor who manages some of her business out of their home—decided to move forward without the HOA’s permission because they thought the association was dragging its feet responding to their proposal. Cestaro says the Griffins’ application “lacked specifics,” which not surprisingly is what the Griffins’ attorney, Stephen Simon, says about the HOA’s alternative suggestions.

Ultimately, the Griffins claimed they were within their rights under the Solar Rights Act, which was passed in 1978. “That’s the central issue of this case,” Cestaro says.

The jury found in favor of the HOA on Nov. 2, but a judge still needed to sign off on what Simon calls an “advisory” verdict, which allows the Griffins to keep the 36 panels on their roof, but also to relocate the 22 panels from the embankment to a platform closer to their house. (Simon says the HOA didn’t bring up the platform option until a month before this suit went to trial in October.)

The judge’s ruling would be complicated by the law that states that HOA restrictions on solar panel installation cannot add more than $2,000 to the total cost and cannot reduce the amount of power the proposed system puts out by more than 20 percent. Michael Ribons, Simon’s law partner, estimates that the reinstallation would cost the Griffins $8,000.

Cestaro thinks this verdict might clarify the language of the 1978 Act, which for example does not specify the size of a solar-panel system a home-owner can install. He also hopes the verdict will help to “balance” the need for renewable energy with community appearance standards established by associations. What irks Simons most about the outcome of this case was the “absolute lack of support” the Griffins received from solar panel manufacturers or installers. “They have a big stake in this.”

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Los Angeles, CA.