As an advocate for increasing the use of renewable energy as one action to slow climate change, I am disappointed by the news that the South Shore Heights Homeowners Association has forced one of the neighborhood residents to remove solar panels from the roof of his house.
Over the weekend the Omaha World Herald published a story summarizing the struggle and conclusion of one South Shore Heights (SSH) resident’s attempt to have solar panels on his home. Resident Tim Adams installed the panels on his roof in 2010 and has been battling the SSH Homeowners Association (HOA) ever since. The two sides recently settled a lawsuit (prompting the OWH story) and Adams agreed to remove the panels by July 1. I want to summarize the arguments on both sides and then add my own two cents.
Tim Adams’ Argument
Mr. Adams created a website to tell his side of the story and to “educate Omaha homeowners about solar power and the lawsuit” with SSH. His primary argument is that solar panels are not prohibited by any language in the SSH covenants. Moreover, Mr. Adams argues the HOA board has for years failed to follow protocols in the covenants for approval of external improvements and has been inconsistent in approving certain improvements.
The HOA’s Argument
In challenging Mr. Adams’ solar panels, the HOA board relied upon covenant language requiring external improvements to conform to the “look, feel and style” of the neighborhood. The board argued that allowing solar panels on Mr. Adams’ house would reduce property values and make it more difficult to sell the home, in addition to being ugly.
Even though the HOA was on the winning side, I think the HOA was on the wrong side. The evidence that global warming is already happening is growing, and even though Nebraska won’t disappear due to sea level rise—unlike many island nations—Nebraskans should start preparing for more frequent and severe drought, more wildfires, and changes to wildlife and insect inhabitants as climate change impacts the midwest. (What do you think these impacts will do to our agricultural economy?) Our past burning of fossil fuels and the associated emissions are starting to catch up with us. The future costs of the impact of climate change are going to make the supposed aesthetic concerns of the SSH HOA insignificant. The SSH HOA seems out of touch with the causes and effects of climate change.*
Although I do not know if the SSH HOA has challenged other exterior improvements in the neighborhood, other HOAs around the country have fought with homeowners over such frivolous items as holiday decorations, yard signs, types of pets, use of clotheslines for drying clothes, and allowable flora and fauna. There have also been other HOA challenges related to more significant items like the on-site use of renewable energy for a home. As a society we need to get past the point where aesthetics and short-term economic concerns prevent one individual from making a decision to reduce his family’s contribution to climate change by investing in solar energy.
I suspect that Mr. Adams thoroughly educated his neighbors on the financial case for on-site renewable energy and the environmental benefits of preventing climate change. However, I wonder if he mentioned the more immediate impacts of pollution from OPPD’s coal- and natural gas-based electricity generation, and the immediate health benefits to everyone in the Omaha region from reducing the emissions from nearby power plants. These emissions are directly tied to respiratory irritation across the population but especially in the very young and very old, linked to asthma and bronchitis, send mercury into the atmosphere and environment, and emit gases that lead to acid rain.
Selection Bias In Action
Regardless of the SSH HOA’s right to exercise its authority pertaining to the “look, feel and style” of the neighborhood, I think that Mr. Adams was right not to back down right away. The HOA may not have fully considered the practical value—as opposed to any aesthetic value—of the panels, because it appears the board members were likely making decisions using selective bias. Selective bias is a human tendency to perceive information that reinforces preexisting beliefs while ignoring information that challenges existing beliefs. In such cases, convincing others to act on information alone is quite difficult. Instead, those individuals need to come to the conclusion on their own either through their own experience or over time. It seems the SSH HOA already has a bias against renewable energy regardless of its practical value, and did not truly consider or weigh that value against any preexisting biases.
The settlement between the parties reinforces the apparent presence of selective bias. In addition to restricting Mr. Adams from taking future legal action or filing complaints against the HOA, the settlement does not allow him to make any future public comments about the case or the HOA and its members, whether on Facebook, his website, or other media. Although I don’t agree, I can understand the settlement requiring removal of the panels and preventing future legal action, but the restraint on Mr. Adams’ speech seems only to underscore the HOA’s bias in this situation. The HOA was able to block Mr. Adams from using renewable energy on his home, but why should he also be restricted from making future comments about the case? The answer is that it reinforces the HOA’s apparent bias against on-site renewables: The HOA had an opportunity to remove a voice from the table that it didn’t agree with by imposing this bias on Mr. Adams’ would-be audience. In other words, the HOA appears to have shifted from the internal bias of “I don’t care what you have to say and I’m not listening,” to the external “Because I don’t want to hear what you have to say, I won’t allow you to say it to anyone else either.”
By filing for a court injunction to force Mr. Adams to remove his panels, the SSH HOA could have set a very damaging precedent to the future use of private renewable energy generation in the Omaha area. Even though it is disappointing that the HOA ultimately achieved its objective to remove the panels, it is better that it occurred through a private settlement rather than a court decision. The next time an HOA threatens renewable energy on a private home in Omaha, I hope Omaha residents can galvanize support for city-wide changes that ensure any homeowner can take action to his or her carbon footprint by investing in private, on-site renewable energy generation. Nebraska’s net metering statutes presumes that residents have the ability take such action, and allowing distributed generation increases the security and reliability of our electricity grid by spreading out the generation and reducing the need for transmission, in addition to mitigating climate change.
*The South Shore Heights website “about” page states that SSH is “situated within a quarter mile” of Lake Zorinsky, and features a panoramic image of the lake. The implication is that the neighborhood derives value from its proximity to a natural place, and I am sure that is true. However, there is a disconnect because Mr. Adams solar panels would reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which is an action that mitigates climate change, and thereby helps preserve natural places as we now know them. Without greater action to mitigate climate change, scientists predict more frequent and severe drought in the midwest, which has the potential to perpetually dry up reservoir lakes such as Lake Zorinsky as water resources become more scarce.