Solar Access Rights Help You Catch Some Rays

Most states protect your current solar access for light and energy. If your state doesn’t, local height restrictions may save your sunshine.

If your state has solar access laws, your home owners association may not prohibit you from installing your own solar energy system. Image: Suntech Power Holdings Co. Ltd.

Here come the solar access laws that affirm your right to install solar devices and use them unobstructed. About two-thirds of U.S. states maintain solar access regulations and solar setbacks. If your area is still in the dark about the right to sunlight, look for building height restrictions and setback rules that may let the sun shine onto your property.

Regulating light and air

Here are some examples of existing regulations.

  • In Ashland, Ore., the Solar Access Ordinance—one of the first citywide solar ordinances—prohibits new structures to cast a shadow bigger than the shadow cast by a 6-foot fence. The city calculates solar setbacks with a formula using the 24-degree angle of the sun at noon on the winter solstice.
  • In California, no plants may be placed or allowed to grow if they shade more than 10% of a neighbor’s sun collector between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.
  • In New Mexico, home owners can obtain solar easements that prevent neighbors from building structures or planting new trees that would block the sun. These easements attach to the property forever and, when the home is sold, the easements are sold along with it.

Grandfathering solar access

Structures and natural landscape features established before the dawn of solar laws may remain.

But, in some places, home owners are being forced to cut down trees that block their neighbor’s new solar panels. In 2008, a Santa Clara, Calif. judge ordered a household to cut down two 4-year-old trees that blocked a neighbor’s new panels. Later that year, Calif. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger exempted pre-existing trees from the California Solar Shade Control Act.

How to get a little sun

  • Research zoning regulations: If your state or city does not expressly protect your solar access rights, its zoning regulations might. Check your state or municipality’s official website. Maximum building height restrictions, which apply to fences, trees that form a hedge, and other building structures, exist in every community. Setback rules aid sun seekers, as well. If a tall structure is closer than it should be to your property, it could be blocking sunlight and violating the law.
  • Get an injunction: If a neighbor’s new addition exceeds local height restrictions and blocks your sun, seek an injunction to stop construction.
  • Trim a tree:You may trim trees that get between you and the sun, but only if they extend over your property line.

New HOA trends

Once, home owners associations could prevent you from installing solar panels because they wrecked uniformity or were eyesores. HOAs in states with solar access law, however, may not prohibit—directly or effectively—residents’ solar energy systems.

HOAs in many new communities are prohibiting buildings that block solar collectors.