Wael Ali charging his Tesla in the garage of his Prince William, Virginia, condo.
Wael Ali charging his Tesla in the garage of his Prince William County, Virginia, condo. It's one of two Teslas and chargers his family owns. Credit: Wael Ali / Courtesy

As an engineer, Wael Ali is hard-wired to find a way around. While others lament the seemingly impenetrable stone walls of bureaucracy, the northern Virginia condominium owner schemes to rearrange those rocks into a gateway.

That’s how the electric vehicle enthusiast created an opening last year to become the first in his Prince William County community to install a pair of chargers in his building’s underground parking garage for the two Teslas his family owns.

Even though he had the law on his side — a “right to charge” measure the General Assembly passed in the 2020 session — Ali realized he’d have to don his educator hat to convince the Harborside homeowners association board that his request was safe, doable and likely the wave of the future.

“The board was fearful,” Ali said, with concerns ranging from fires, liability, expense and access. “This was about teaching and showing people what steps are involved. It was a learning experience for them.”

Similar homeowner boards across the state will probably be tangling more and more with how to accommodate residents’ requests for electric vehicle chargers.

One prompt is Senate Bill 630, the right-to-charge legislation that prohibits homeowner and condominium associations from prohibiting installation in a resident’s designated parking space. Another is Clean Cars Virginia, which Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam signed into law this year. It signals to auto manufacturers that the state is a high-priority destination for low- and no-emission vehicles.

Close to 6,800 associations affiliated with condos, property owners and cooperatives are registered with Virginia’s Common Interest Community Board — and that’s far from a complete list of such groups.

That volume led Heather Gillespie to believe she would be bombarded by questions about SB 630. She works for the state Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation as ombudsperson for the Common Interest Community.

“In the last year, I’ve gotten maybe one inquiry about electric vehicle charging stations,” said Gillespie, ombudsperson since the position was created in 2008. “I’m quite surprised. I thought there would be a flurry of phone call and emails.”

She attributes that unanticipated calm to the law being rolled out as the country wrestled with the coronavirus pandemic.

While the board doesn’t notify its registrants about every bill that might affect them, Gillespie carefully tracks such legislation each year, including state Sen. Scott Surovell’s efforts to shepherd the right-to-charge bill.

“He pushed it for a while and it finally made it through,” she said. “I give him a lot of credit for that.”

Law takes easiest first step

Surovell, an attorney and environmental issue champion, said he wrote the bill in anticipation of a vast transportation shift in Virginia. The Democrat serves part of Fairfax, Prince William and Stafford counties.

His 2 ½ years as an electric vehicle owner tuned him into charging challenges. And his law practice exposed him to the details of litigation centered on homeowners associations.

Surovell intentionally narrowed the bill to cover parking spaces that association members already own.

“It’s important to be able to charge at home and this is the easiest first step,” he said in an interview. “I immediately recognized this would be rife with conflict. If we were going to have robust electric vehicle development in the state, I wanted to deal with it on the front end.”

Surovell has a charger in his home’s driveway, but his installation was more straightforward because his Mount Vernon neighborhood in Fairfax County isn’t part of a homeowners association.

“I’m going to keep legislating in this space,” he said. “Electric vehicle ownership is going to rise exponentially in Virginia. I figured the sooner we get ahead of this issue, the fewer conflicts we’ll have.”

Surovell collaborated with the Community Associations Institute, an international trade group based in Virginia, to craft his bill.

Morgan Gaines, a spokesperson for the institute’s chapter covering the Washington D.C. metro region, said vehicle chargers have been a “hot topic these past few years.”

While staffers at her organization don’t comment on specific situations regarding chargers or other association issues, she said they do offer resources to help their members — managers, homeowners and business partners — exchange ideas and information.

Fellow senators have broached Surovell about perhaps tackling the bigger, messier, and more complex issue of legislating charger installations on common or shared property.

“With SB 630, I wanted to bite off what we could do,” he said. “The other is a very complicated legal issue that we would have to navigate.”

EV enthusiasts keep pressure on boards

Luis Albisu lives near Ali. They’re not in the same building, but they’re both in Prince William County along the Occoquan River and adjacent to Route 1.

Albisu is overjoyed that Surovell prodded Virginia to join at least seven other states — including Maryland, New York and Florida — with right-to-charge measures.

A few years ago, Albisu began toying with the idea of purchasing an electric vehicle. But he became frustrated when his Harbor Point East condo board told him he was out of luck on installing a charger in either of his parking spaces because such guidelines didn’t yet exist.

That prompted him to email Florida’s law to Surovell. The state senator acknowledged Albisu as a catalyst behind his legislation, but said their correspondence was limited to digital exchanges.

“The law has made it easier but there are still challenges,” said Albisu, a recently retired cybersecurity specialist. “I’m a techie at heart. I’ve always wanted to have a futuristic, efficient vehicle that’s good for the environment. But if I have an EV, I want to have my own charger.”

To spur such an advance, Albisu is tag-teaming with an association board member in his 67-unit, 17-year-old building on several projects.

One is a spring survey to capture residents’ perspective on technology such as EV chargers, security cameras and video doorbells. The other involves exhaustively researching the potential pluses and perils of installing charging infrastructure. The idea is to create guidance to help refine future legislation and a blueprint for associations statewide wrestling with the same issues.

Albisu is hopeful that a measured approach will convince the traditionally risk-averse board to welcome what’s already outlined in Surovell’s law.

“I think we have a route to get it done,” he said. “We will eventually get to yes.”

Patience, politeness, persistence pay off

Dave Drabkin is the current board president at Harborside, the 28-unit condo where Ali lives. The retired federal employee wasn’t serving in that capacity when the board finally approved Ali’s Tesla charger applications last year.

Drabkin praised Ali’s diplomacy during his circuitous quest.

“He could have been a jerk and raised hell about it,” Drabkin said. “But he had patience and was polite and persistent. And he succeeded.”

Ali is the co-founder and CEO of Spin Systems, a software engineering firm in Fairfax County where three Tesla EV chargers have been at-the-ready since 2017.

He owns two units and four parking spots in his building. In January 2020, when he first filed paperwork with his association board, he expected to hear back in a month. When he didn’t hear a peep, he figured they hoped he would go away.

Ali didn’t cower. He attended their late April meeting with a copy of Surovell’s bill in hand. By then, Gov. Ralph Northam had signed it into law, effective July 1.

“They were still skeptical,” he said. “I knew they’d never seen this done before, but at the end of the day, this is the law and I cannot be denied.”

Patiently, he walked them through a diagram that outlined all the details on how the Tesla chargers would be permitted, installed, connected to his electric power supply and inspected. He had hired a certified, experienced professional to be sure everything was up to code for his $10,000 investment.

Two days later, the board gave Ali a thumbs up. By May, the first charger was installed. The second followed in July.

Ali even mentored a fellow condo dweller and Tesla driver who hadn’t pursued an earlier rejected request for a charger because he didn’t want to cause trouble.

“I told him it’s not about fighting,” Ali said, “it’s about your rights.”

Drabkin is pleased that the complex has been able to accommodate three chargers thus far. He also pointed out that Ali and the other man who pursued them are several decades younger than most of the other residents.

He’s concerned that limited space in the building’s 15-year-old electrical room will present an obstacle if many unit owners start seeking chargers.

“The idea of first-come, first-served is equitable for the moment,” Drabkin said, adding that might change if a saturation point is reached. “At the moment we don’t have a problem. And we’re not looking for a solution to a problem we don’t have.”

Ali said such a remedy already exists, but it would be up to the board to approve a panel upgrade in the main electrical room.

The father of three children under age 10 also said being able to plug in at home goes far beyond the resale value a charger adds. Electric vehicles eliminate fossil fuel fill-ups, and those electrons will become greener as Virginia shifts its grid to renewable energy.

“We have to look at the big picture,” he said. “This is good for my kids and my kids’ kids of the future.”

Elizabeth is a longtime energy and environment reporter who has worked for InsideClimate News, Energy Intelligence and Crain Communications. Her groundbreaking dispatches for InsideClimate News from Kalamazoo, Michigan, “The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You Never Heard Of” won a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting in 2013. Her book, "Outpedaling 'The Big C': My Healing Cycle Across America" is available from Bancroft Press. Based in Washington, D.C., Elizabeth covers the state of Virginia.