In reversal, Virginia AG says localities may ban fracking

fracking signVirginia Attorney General Mark Herring issued an official advisory opinion on May 5 holding that Virginia localities have the right to prohibit hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) as part of their power to regulate land use within their boundaries. The letter reverses a two-year-old opinion by former Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli.

Herring’s opinion cites §15.2-2280 of the Virginia Code, which grants broad zoning powers to localities. These include the power to “regulate, restrict, permit, prohibit, and determine” land uses, such as “the excavation or mining of soil or other natural resources.” Thus, writes Herring, “I conclude that the General Assembly has authorized localities to pass zoning ordinances prohibiting fracking. The plain language of the stature also authorizes localities to regulate fracking in instances where it is permitted.”

Herring’s opinion comes in a letter to Senator Richard Stuart, who had asked whether Virginia law allows localities to prohibit “unconventional gas and oil drilling,” commonly known as fracking, and whether they may use their zoning authority “to regulate aspects of fracking, such as the timing of drilling operations, traffic, or noise.”

The letter overrules a January 11, 2013 opinion by then-Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, which held that the General Assembly had preempted localities’ right to regulate or ban drilling when it passed the Virginia Gas and Oil Act. Under §45.1-361.5, localities may not “impose any condition, or require any other local license, permit, fee, or bond to perform any gas, oil or geophysical operations which varies from or is in addition to the requirements of this chapter.”

But, Herring notes, the statute “also includes a savings clause stating that the Act does not ‘limit or supersede the jurisdiction and requirements of . . . local land-use ordinances.’” Thus, it explicitly preserves local zoning authority to prohibit or limit fracking.

Herring concludes, “To the extent that the 2013 Opinion conflicts with this conclusion, it is overruled.”

Interestingly, if localities choose to restrict fracking but not prohibit it, they may actually leave themselves more open to challenge. Herring’s opinion reaffirms that portion of Cuccinelli’s opinion that upheld the right of localities to impose some restrictions on fracking, short of outright prohibition. However, the restriction must be “reasonable in scope” and “not inconsistent with the Act or regulations properly enacted pursuant to the Act.” As a result, a fracking company might have a better shot at challenging a restriction than it would an outright ban.

Herring adds, “Determining the extent to which particular zoning restrictions on fracking may possibly be preempted by state law will be governed by the particular facts, restrictions, and regulations at issue. Consequently, I can express no opinion on whether any particular zoning restriction has been preempted.”

Virginia Attorney General weighs in on HOA efforts to ban solar

Photo courtesy of Solarize Blacksburg

Photo courtesy of Solarize Blacksburg

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring has issued an opinion letter in response to concerns of some residents that their homeowner associations (HOAs) won’t let them install solar panels, in spite of recent state legislation nullifying most solar bans. Herring’s letter confirms the plain language of the 2014 law that HOA bans on solar installations are valid only if they appear in the association’s “recorded declaration.” Otherwise the association is prohibited from banning solar panels, although they can impose “reasonable restrictions” on their “size, place, and manner of placement.”

The letter, dated April 14, 2015, is in response to a request for an official advisory opinion from Delegate Joseph Yost, a Republican who had supported last year’s launch of Solarize Blacksburg. Some homeowners who sought to join the cooperative buying program ran into resistance from HOAs (more broadly called property owner associations, or POAs) unfamiliar with the new law.

Two parts of the AG’s opinion are worth quoting here:

What is noteworthy about the current language of this statute is that it permits only one procedure by which solar panels may be prohibited by community associations: by inclusion in the recorded declaration. The maxim ‘expressio unius est exclusio alterius’ “provides that mention of a specific item in a statute implies that omitted items were not intended to be included within the scope of the statute.” Applying this maxim, the current language of the statute must be viewed as meaning that any attempt by a POA to prohibit solar panels on private property by means other than a recorded declaration—such as rules, regulations, bylaws, policies, or other unrecorded instruments—is unenforceable.

(Footnote omitted.) The letter then adds:

When read as a whole, the statute also means that, with the sole exception of recorded declarations, existing prohibitions against solar panels on private property are no longer enforceable.

The opinion goes on to consider the constitutionality of the law and finds that it “does not violate the constitutional prohibition against legislation impairing the obligations of contract.”

Notably, the AG did not address the question of what kinds of HOA restrictions short of a ban meet the law’s “reasonableness” criterion. To date, the only guidance I know about on that question is a guide put together by the Maryland, DC and Virginia Solar Energy Industries Association—or MDV-SEIA, as the trade association is known.

As for Solarize Blacksburg, it proved a huge success in spite of isolated HOA issues, with a total of 55 solar installations. Since then, 20 other communities across the state have followed its lead to launch their own solarize efforts. The Blacksburg team is now helping to launch Solarize Montgomery with a party to be held at 5:30 today, April 22, at the Montgomery County Government Center in Christiansburg.


Update: After I put up this post I learned about a nice little segment that WVTF Radio did yesterday on the HOA dispute and the AG’s opinion. You can check it out here.