Solar power project eclipsed in D.C.

Three years ago, when Mark Chandler and Laurie Wingate bought their 1906 foursquare home in Cleveland Park, the couple had two goals in mind as they began their renovation: maintain the home’s historic character while updating it with environmentally friendly features.

For most of their renovation, the goals were compatible with one other — until they wanted to install solar panels on their hipped roof.

In a May 31 decision that some saw as limiting solar power in the District, the Historic Preservation Review Board, after initially deadlocking on the issue, voted 4-3 against approving the Chandler-Wingate proposal. Although the board had no objection to the panels that were placed on the rear addition, those who voted against the proposal disapproved of the eight panels on the west side of the house because of their visibility from the street.

As solar power becomes more affordable and more homeowners aim to reduce energy use, this case may be the first of many in which historic preservation and environmental sustainability collide.

The guidelines for solar panels on roofs of historic buildings were adopted by the HPRB in 1997. They state: “On a flat roof, solar panels should be located so they are not visible from the public street. If located on a sloping roof building, they should only be installed on rear slopes that are not visible from a public street.”

“The effect of that is that any house that is south or west facing would not be able to use solar,” Chandler said. “By definition, that’s half the houses” in D.C.

The board members who opposed the proposal agreed with a report written by Anne Brockett, an architectural historian in the Historic Preservation Office, that said the panels “create a visual intrusion on the house and into an intact historic streetscape. The panels are highly reflective and visually distracting from the form and finish of the house’s roof.”

“It’s not as simple as saying, ‘Oh, the board doesn’t want anything visible from the street,’ ” said Steve Callcott, an HPO deputy director. “It’s the relative prominence of the visibility and whether or not they are being put on the primary roof form in a way that altered the character of that roof form.”

More than 230 solar-panel projects have been approved by the HPO, and almost none of them have gone before the review board. That’s because most of the solar installations have been on row houses, which have flat roofs.

Chandler said that if the panels were placed on the south side of his house, the one that faces the street, he and his wife would be able to replace 70 percent of their Pepco power. “We didn’t propose any on the south side because we felt that there would be sensitivity to putting it on the side facing the street, even though they would be very high up and less visible,” Chandler said.

Instead, their first proposal was for 25 panels on the rear and west sides of the home, which would replace 42 percent of their power. The HPO suggested they remove four panels on the west side, which took it down to about 30 percent. Removing all the panels on the west side would reduce their power savings below a threshold that would make sense given the cost of installation.

The problem with solar panels seems to arise in the interpretation of the guidelines. As HPRB chairwoman Catherine Buell — who voted for the proposal then ultimately abstained so that there was a resolution — pointed out during the hearing, the guidelines are not law, and the board has the flexibility to do what it deems appropriate.

But what is appropriate is subjective. The Cleveland Park Historical Society’s architectural review committee also had a spirited discussion about the solar panels on the Chandler-Wingate home.

“We ultimately thought that they were appropriate,” Gwen Wright, the committee’s co-chairman, said. “What played into it for us was the fact that we didn’t believe that the panels in that location would be particularly obtrusive or would diminish the historicity of the house.”

Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3C also considered the issue. The commissioners passed a resolution that stated they were fine with the solar panels as long as the HPRB didn’t have a problem with them. “This was an issue that caught us a little bit off guard,” ANC3C Chairman Victor Silveira said. “It had more implications than what we thought.”

Commissioner Leila Afzal, whose single-member district includes the Chandler-Wingate home, would like the HPRB to provide clearer guidance.

“One worries that solar panels are one thing,” Afzal said. “What about skylights on the front roof? And what about ripping off the entire front of a house and making it glass to let in the most light? At what point do you start damaging the historic qualities and values of a house so much that you’ve undermined it all to the benefit of what might be a perceived good?”

Some, including ANC3C Vice Chairman Carl Roller, felt the homeowners had gone a long way toward camouflaging the solar panels. Chandler and his wife wanted to use a more expensive, pure black panel that has no metal frame or rims and extends only five inches from the roof’s surface. They also planned to follow the Interior Department’s guidelines for solar on historical structures by replacing the light-colored asphalt shingles with a darker shingle that would better blend with the panels. “I absolutely, unequivocally support historic preservation,” Roller said. “But sometimes I also feel that we get caught up in an overly rigid application of some rules.”

Silveira wants the ANC3C to have a discussion of the issue in the fall. “The rules of the historic district should not stagnate,” he said. “They should evolve. Because historic district does not mean historic stagnation, and it should never mean that.”

The HPO is in the process of redoing its guidelines in order to make them more specific. However, because of staffing limitations, it has only tackled about two a year. “The board’s current guideline only briefly mentions solar panels and establishes the principle that they should not be visible from a public street,” Callcott said. “That’s an easy principal to apply, but it doesn’t take into account a lot of the technical aspects that might be helpful for property owners to understand and maybe doesn’t capture all the nuances that the board wants to get across to the people about possible solutions.”

Kathy Orton is a reporter and Web editor for the Real Estate section. She covers the Washington metropolitan area housing market.
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