A long road to solar energy

At Four Seasons two couples take ‘giant step’

By: William Wichert
   MANSFIELD — It has been heralded as a promising technology bearing both environmental and financial rewards, but in the Four Seasons at Mapleton community, solar energy is a tough sell.
   For two couples in this age-restricted development off Route 68, the road to solar has been a long one, beginning with the rejection of the projects in the summer by a residents committee and ending this month with the construction of the community’s first clean energy systems.
   This sight of solar panels resting atop roofs and snatching energy from the sky represents uncharted territory for a community where architectural styles are tightly controlled and any changes to one’s house must be pre-approved by the neighbors down the street.
   "This is a huge, giant step for people who live in homeowners associations," said Emily Meyers, who began this initiative in June with a proposal to build 52 solar panels at her Vandevere Lane home.
   That plan was rejected by the community’s Architectural Review Committee (ARC) because of the aesthetic damage that solar panels would bring to the neighborhood, said Ms. Meyers. The second solar application was rejected by the ARC in September for the same reasons.
   "We just couldn’t understand. To us, it was so un-American," said Ms. Meyers, whose system was installed this week. "You almost give up your rights as a citizen when you move into one of these places."
   Those rights can go only as far as the guidelines created by the developer and carried out by the homeowners association, commonly known as the declaration of covenants, conditions and restrictions (CC&Rs).
   In its report "Bringing Solar Energy to the Planned Community," the California-based Consumer Energy Center states: "In the hands of an overzealous ARC, CC&Rs can become a straitjacket to solar development."
   The problem in the Four Seasons at Mapleton community, however, was that solar energy construction was never written into the CC&Rs. The developer did not address the technology in its original designs and, consequently, the homeowners association did not have any basis to evaluate such projects.
   "In this state, we’re still not doing any kind of solar activities," said Doug Fenichel, a spokesman for developer K. Hovnanian, which constructed Four Seasons about six years ago. "That’s why it’s a homeowners association. They run that community as they see fit."
   Given that dilemma, the biggest decision made by the community’s board of trustees, after the two solar projects came under its review in December, was to revise the association’s guidelines to include solar technology, said Don Reilly, vice president of the board of trustees. The board then overturned the ARC decisions and approved the solar projects.
   "The only thing (the ARC members) had to look at was aesthetic value," said Mr. Reilly. "(The board of trustees) thought it was in the community’s best interests to begin allowing these installations." Other members of the board of trustees and the ARC did not return calls for comment.
   The revised CC&Rs now include language regarding solar energy systems and certain construction standards, including a provision that requires homeowners to remove the system if they sell their homes, said Mr. Reilly. He said no new applications to build these systems have been submitted, but that the board of trustees is considering the construction of this system for the Four Seasons clubhouse.
   Although some residents may criticize the powerful role played by the ARC, Mr. Reilly said the applications went through all the proper channels according to the structure of the homeowners association.
   "The process worked. It may have taken time, but it was a new concept," he said. "(The board of trustees) went beyond how it looked and considered all other aspects of it."
   For Myra Dickert of Allister Lane, whose solar project also was approved by the board after being rejected by the ARC, the financial and environmental benefits of the technology make it a "no-brainer."
   Building a solar energy system may seem expensive at first, since constructing 43 panels on Ms. Dickert’s roof will ultimately cost $66,650, but that amount will be offset by state and federal incentives. Ms. Dickert said she expects to receive a $43,860 state rebate and a $2,000 federal tax credit, leaving her with a balance of $20,790.
   Ms. Meyers said she will have to pay for only $21,712 of the $78,052 cost of her project, and both women said their individual electric bills will be nearly eliminated. There should be no electric bill in the winter months, and the summer bill is expected to be about $30 a month, compared to a monthly cost of $300 without the solar panels, said Ms. Meyers.
   "It is an expensive project. Basically, what we’re doing is paying for our electricity up front," she said. "At the end of five or seven years, we have something to show for our money."
   The greatest incentive for Ms. Dickert was how her solar panels would help the local environment. Her system, which should be completed at the end of the month, is expected to eliminate 19,132 pounds of carbon dioxide a year, and act as the equivalent of planting 3 acres of trees, she said.
   "It is so exciting. It really is," said Ms. Dickert. "You got to give back a little. You can’t always take everything."