Electric Cars Are Coming: When Parking Issues Become ‘Charged’ How Will Community Associations Respond?

Published on: June 23, 2011

Pitched battles over parking rights —perpetual conflicts in many community associations — are likely to intensify as more owners acquire electric cars and begin requesting, or demanding, facilities to recharge them.

This prospect is not as remote as it may seem. Although electric cars are still relatively rare in this country, a Morgan-Stanley study published in 2008 estimated that there will be 100,000 plug-in cars on U.S. roadways by 2012, a projection that the economic downturn may delay for a while, but not for long.

Rising fuel costs, increasing concerns about global warming and the desire to reduce carbon footprints will make electric cars more appealing to many drivers, while falling prices will make them more affordable.

Anticipating those trends, some forward thinking local governments are already beginning to consider the need for recharging stations. The City of Vancouver, for example, recently approved an ordinance requiring that 10 percent of the parking spaces in newly constructed condominiums be equipped with chargers for electric cars.

Automobile manufacturers, aware that consumers won’t purchase electric cars unless they are assured of the ability to refuel them, are also addressing the issue. Nissan has teamed up with a major condominium developer in Japan on a demonstration project to study the issues related to the installation of charging equipment in condominiums. The goals are to “identify any problems, address potential solutions and study the overall user friendliness of charging stations,” Nissan’s press announcement explained.

Anticipating the Questions

Our office has fielded a few electric car queries from association clients – not many, but enough to confirm our view that this is going to become an issue for many communities. It might be five years from now, it might be three years from now, but at some point, and probably sooner than associations expect, condominium owners are going to begin asking about electric cars. And boards would be well-advised to get in front of that curve and start thinking now about how they are going to respond.

The installation of charging stations shouldn’t pose any problems in communities in which owners have separate garages. Electric car owners can install the equipment easily at their own expense and with no impact on their neighbors.

Installations will be more complicated and potentially more problematic in multi-family buildings, where charging equipment will be located in common areas — either indoor garages or outdoor parking lots. Boards here will have to consider, among other questions:

  • Who will pay for the installations and for any structural modifications they require; and
  • Where will the charging stations be located – a particular problem if parking spaces are neither deeded nor assigned, and even more difficult if parking is limited, subject to a ‘first-come-first-served’ protocol.

Although these questions are new and still evolving, at least some of the answers seem clear, starting with the cost. Electric car owners who will use the charging equipment should pay for it and for any structural modifications required to install it.

Owners will need permission to modify common area space for their charging stations. The easiest and most straightforward solution would be for boards to grant an easement for this purpose, which would not require the approval of owners in the community.

Users Should Pay

Boards can and should insist on approving the installation plans and either select or approve the contractors owners use. Boards should also require owners to pay for any additional insurance needed and to indemnify the association for any damages resulting from the installation, use or maintenance of the charging equipment. Electric car owners should obviously pay for the electricity used to recharge their vehicles, which may require the installation of a separate meter, for which the owners using the equipment should also pay.
Locating the charging stations may be somewhat more complicated. Location shouldn’t be a problem if parking spaces are deeded or assigned, unless the installation isn’t possible for some reason in the electric car owner’s space. In this case, the car owners may have to work out a solution on their own —by swapping spaces with willing neighbors, for example. Boards obviously can’t order some residents to swap spaces they own to accommodate the needs of others. A board might be able to reshuffle spaces that are assigned but not owned, but not without infuriating the owners involved.

If spaces aren’t assigned, some owners will almost certainly object if the electric car owner receives a reserved spot – especially if there aren’t enough spaces to go around. Anticipating complaints that electric car owners are receiving special treatment, boards should try to select the least desirable spot in which the charging station can be installed. And they should definitely avoid designating “preferred” spots, or spots other owners may view as preferred, for the charging stations.

Boards are not required to approve owners’ requests to install charging stations in common areas, of course. They have the authority to say no. Owners of electric cars are not a protected class and recharging stations are not “accommodations” to which they are entitled under the Fair Housing Act or any other law. But there are good arguments for associations to meet the needs of electric car owners, if they can.

Avoiding the Backlash
Being socially responsible is one of them. Electric cars are, or appear to be, better for the environment than gasoline-powered vehicles. Avoiding litigation is another. Support for environmentally sensible policies is growing among consumers and policy-makers. While it seems unlikely that courts will side with owners who sue associations for barring the charging stations they need, it is not hard to imagine a legislative backlash similar to the one that produced “right-to-dry” legislation requiring associations to allow owners to install clothes lines. Some electric car owners with an ear for slogans will almost certainly demand “power to the people,” and some lawmakers, with an eye for votes, will almost certainly propose “right-to-charge” laws in response.

As more consumers acquire electric cars, charging stations may become a desirable amenity, increasing the appeal of communities that have them and increasing the value and marketability of owners’ properties. With that potential in mind, boards might want to poll owners to gauge their support for installing charging stations as a common expense. Electric car owners could be charged a fee for using the equipment.

The charging stations could become a revenue source for some communities. Some industry executives suggest that associations lease the equipment from providers, as they would coin-operated laundry facilities – collecting a portion of the income generated. As with any income-generating business, associations must consider the tax implications and liability concerns, but this is an option that may be appealing to some communities.

Other opportunities will no doubt arise, along with more questions and concerns, as electric cars become more prevalent. Community association boards and managers should begin thinking about these issues now, before owners begin squabbling over parking “rights,” before legislators begin drafting ‘right-to-charge’ laws, and before electric car owners start shopping for very long extension cords.