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Carrboro takes on neighborhood covenants in the name of sustainability

Green living hung up



Sharon Kolling-Perin just wanted a clothesline. The 31-year-old Carrboro mother of three thought hanging her family's clothes out in the yard rather than stuffing them into an electric dryer would be an environmentally friendly way to get some household chores done. But a maze of neighborhood, city and state regulations have taken her simple request all the way to the General Assembly.

Kolling-Perin lives in Roberson Place, a neighborhood governed in part by homeowners' association covenants. The covenants, like most other documents of their kind, restrict what residents may do with their property, including installing so-called "sustainability features" like clotheslines.

Rules like these are meant to protect property owners from less tidy neighbors, whose unsightly yard ornaments or garish color choices could conceivably lower property values for those around them. But Kolling-Perin was surprised to learn that her environmentally friendly community wouldn't allow a clothesline, even temporarily.

"Many of us moved here because of how liberal it is," she said. "Carrboro is a place where you can live your politics."

Kolling-Perin contacted Carrboro Mayor Mark Chilton to see if the town had a process for circumventing homeowners' association rules when it came to environmentally friendly home improvements. Carrboro had no such law, but Chilton and the Board of Aldermen thought well enough of the notion to take it up as an issue.

"People in Carrboro take sustainability very seriously and want to be able to be a community on the leading edge," Alderman Dan Coleman said.

"This is an issue that alternative energy groups have been advocating for some time," Chilton said. "If you need to go around [homeowners' association rules] to help our community become a more environmentally sound place to live, we think that's more important than some neighborhood covenants."

In 2007, the N.C. General Assembly passed a law overriding neighborhood covenants on solar panels in most circumstances, but Chilton indicated he felt that measure didn't go far enough.

North Carolina law prohibits municipalities from creating many ordinances without permission from the state legislature, so in January, the Aldermen sought support from local legislators, including House Speaker Joe Hackney, Rep. Verla Insko and Sen. Ellie Kinnaird. At a Feb. 17 public hearing, the board formally requested the change, despite vocal opposition from homeowner groups.

"Everybody has to be allowed to go green, but it needs to be looked at differently in each neighborhood," said Richard Anstine, president of the Fair Oaks Homeowners' Association. Stressing that he attended the meeting on his own volition and not to voice the organized opposition of his association, Anstine said Carrboro's request is misguided. "When you buy a home, you pay attention to the homeowners' covenants. For them to say, 'We can do what we want to do in the name of green living,' that seems very heavy-handed."

Anstine said homeowners' associations, not the town's elected leaders, should have the authority to decide what additions residents can make to their homes in the name of sustainability. But Kolling-Perin said she investigated that possibility, with unsatisfactory results. The Roberson Place homeowners' association requires a 75 percent majority vote to change its covenant, which Kolling-Perin said is nearly impossible to get, since few residents attend the meetings.

"A lot of homeowners feel the way I do," she said. "But people who want things to change are just waiting for the covenant to run out."

Aldermen are asking for the authority to "provide by ordinance that no deed restriction or covenant can have the effect of limiting or prohibiting the use of green or sustainability features on a residential property." Anstine and other critics argue the request is vague, and worry it would allow residents to put up almost anything, no matter how unsightly (residential wind turbines, for example). But Coleman stressed that the initiative is still in a preliminary phase, and no law would be enacted without more public input.

"It's important to be clear that what we're seeking is the authority to create an ordinance," he said. "There's no firm idea what it might entail."

Insko, who will likely introduce the House version of Carrboro's request, said local bills such as this usually pass without much debate, but she wasn't entirely comfortable with it yet.

"When we run a local bill, we prefer it not be controversial back home," Insko said. "Those are our constituents, too."

Insko wants to put more protections for covenants into the bill before introducing it.

"To me, the big issue is if we want the General Assembly overriding homeowners' associations," she said.

Environmental groups would like to see more—rather than less—provisions for homeowners to install sustainability features, said Julie Robinson of the N.C. Sustainable Energy Association.

"We believe that it is very unfortunate that so many North Carolinians are not allowed to contribute to our economy and our future by generating their own power," Robinson wrote in an e-mail. "Installing renewable energy technologies ... puts local people to work ... and conserves our valuable resources."

Insko said she and Kinnaird will likely introduce some version of the bill within the next few weeks. If it passes, Coleman and Chilton indicated there will be a prolonged series of discussions on its specifics.

Until then, Kolling-Perin—and homeowners like her—will have to settle for the dryer.

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