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Homeowners Associations Thwart Efforts to Get Green

Neighbors, preservationists cite safety issues, aesthetics

by Meredith Cohn

Katie Roberts' environmental ethic runs strong. She grew up on a farm, now works for an eco-conscious company and has renovated the inside of her Odenton home to conserve energy. But when she decided to add a rain barrel to an out-of-sight nook of her backyard, she had a problem: her community association.

(Flickr photo by simplerich) "The barrels are very attractive and they're the same color as my deck and would fit in aesthetically, but anything bigger than 2 feet is considered a statue," she said of the barrel, made locally from an old wooden wine cask. "It's great that Maryland has tax incentives and otherwise supports doing great things for the environment, but many homeowners associations don't let you do them."

As greening becomes more mainstream and is encouraged through tax incentives - even the Maryland governor's mansion has solar panels - more people are running afoul of their neighbors, associations and historic preservationists. Safety and security are sometimes cited by the opposition, but the main issue with rain barrels, solar panels, wind turbines, new windows and clotheslines seems to be aesthetics.

In response, some states, including Maryland, are considering laws to force neighborhood associations into submission.

Jeanne N. Ketley, president of Maryland Homeowners' Association Inc., an advocacy group, said lawmakers have taken action in many states because community associations have been slow to modernize covenants and have not struck a good balance between communities' and individuals' needs.

"Associations really do need to get ahead of the curve rather than wait for a homeowner to ask for these things," she said, noting that one person's conservation efforts can aid everyone, such as in a condo building that shares in one utility or water bill.

"Environmentalism is the future. They need to look at what they can do and propose it to membership. But very few are doing it because people don't like change," Ketley said.

Consider the clothesline. It's a simple device, an efficient, solar-powered dryer. But it's prohibited by many associations.

"Some people just think it's only what poor people do," said Alexander Lee, founder and executive director of the New Hampshire-based Project Laundry List, a clothesline advocacy. "But to more people it's becoming the eco-chic thing to do."

Already, a handful of states, including Florida, Maine, Vermont and Hawaii, have passed laws requiring associations to allow clotheslines in most circumstances. But bills in Maryland, Virginia, Oregon and New Hampshire have failed.

That's just one eco-feature in a few states. There are an estimated 300,000 community associations covering some 60 million residents, and they all have some kind of restrictions. And certainly, the problems aren't always an official ban. Sometimes, neighbors just don't want to look at anyone's flapping underwear.

Maryland Del. Sue Hecht, a Democrat from Frederick, home to a BP Solar manufacturing facility, said sometimes people need a little push to accept change. She has supported tax incentives for solar and wind energy systems and utilities' greater use of solar power. She also won passage last year of a bill prohibiting unreasonable limitations on solar panels, though she believes many groups don't know about the law and continue to reject applications.

Hecht hopes to spread the word and may introduce a new bill to support wind energy, though passage could be trickier because turbines are more visible than panels. She also plans to promote a bill that has failed twice, the "right to dry" bill that would require associations to allow clotheslines.

She said education is key to winning support. Neighbors just need to understand the energy and financial savings.

"As energy keeps increasing as an issue and climate change remains a big issue, I'm delighted that people are interested and concerned," she said. "We didn't have a dryer until I was in high school. We canned. We recycled. We lost that for a number of years and it's coming back. Thank goodness."

Among the few homeowners associations addressing environmental issues in their covenants is the community of Wilde Lake in Columbia. But there are some rules. An application is required for rain barrels, compost piles, solar panels and clotheslines. It must include such things as a site plan, drawings or pictures and proposed landscaping.

No standing water is allowed at any time in the rain barrels and it's also "recommended that the color/style of the rain barrels complement the color/style of the house." For clotheslines, only umbrella or retractable versions are allowed, and they must be removed when not in use. Solar panels must be flush with the roof.

Some neighbors say rules are important. Having a third party provide guidelines and make decisions can be useful, especially if the relationship between neighbors is already strained.

That was the case with Federal Hill residents who battled this summer over a homeowner's plan to install a wind turbine on her roof. Many area residents supported the move, but the two next-door neighbors thought it wasn't appropriate for an urban rowhouse. The city government ended the debate - but not the simmering tensions - when it turned down the homeowner's request for a zoning exception that would have permitted the turbine.

Some homeowners do have choices, though they can cost them. Ted Pearson had to forgo historic tax credits in his Mount Vernon-Belvedere neighborhood in Baltimore because he wanted storm windows and decking of recycled wood and plastic rather than less-efficient materials.

"I wish [historic commissioners] were a little more liberal in the materials allowed," he said. "You can use them, but you can't get tax credits. I understand why they want to keep everything pure, but it's not always practical."

Steve Shen, chair of the Mount Vernon-Belvedere architectural review committee, said he tries to work with residents to steer them to materials that will pass muster with the city's historical review commission, which has the ultimate say in historic districts. He said the association supports greening and tries to research and discuss ways to get residents through the city process even before they ask.

For example, vinyl windows are not OK, but Shen can tell you ways to restore old windows and add storm windows, which are better for the environment than buying new systems. He also said green roofs and solar panels are acceptable if they can't be seen from the street. A rain barrel would likely be approved in the backyard.

"A lot of times the outcome depends on how people approach the conversation," he said. "In the past, the association has been very heavy-handed. Now, we try and sell ourselves as a resource."

As for Roberts in Odenton, she plans to work within the association in Seven Oaks, where she's lived for the past six years. She believes she can change people's minds about greening their homes and neighborhood. She's seeking to form a committee and bring in speakers, and eventually, change the covenant limiting outdoor accessories, including rain barrels, to 2 feet. She'd also like solar lights, solar thermal panels and a clothesline, also banned.

"I got to thinking about what individuals can do," she said. "There's so much more to it than recycling and turning out the lights and changing the light bulbs. ... I'm not OK with sitting back because they said no."

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