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Solar panels in historic districts: who decides where 'modern' fits?

John Beach, 74, stands in his backyard in Yarmouth, where he can see newly installed solar panels.
Eve Zuckoff
John Beach stands in his backyard in Yarmouth, where he can see his newly installed solar panels.

When Yarmouth resident John Beach steps out into his backyard, he sees two things he’s proud of: a sprawling garden filled with tomatoes, zucchini, and berries, and 12 solar panels installed on his back roof.

“It sort of suggests that at least I'm aware of some things,” said Beach, who lives in the home with his wife.

"Some things..." — meaning climate change and the power of renewable energy to drive down planet-warming emissions.

Beach worked with a solar company that initially proposed panels on the front and back of his house, but the Yarmouth Old Kings Highway Historic District Committee denied a proposal to install any panels that faced the street.

Beach said committee members told him solar panels on the front of his house would be “historically inappropriate,” he recalled. They described it, he said, as “visually inconsistent with the standards of the historic committee.”

But a few streets over, there are solar panels on a side-facing garage, “which is extremely visible from the street,” Beach said. And his neighbors, just two doors down, have solar panels on the front of their house, he argued. The historic committee told him that’s because the house is set back with trees in the yard. That answer, for Beach, was maddening.

“I certainly respect what they're trying to do. I mean, I live here partly for that reason,” he said, indicating his support of historic preservation. “But I think we need to become more aware of the nexus between historic preservation and the need to safeguard our environment.”

Cape Cod is home to one of the largest historic districts in the country. In the 80 square miles that make up the Old Kings Highway Historic District, the goal of preservationists is to maintain a certain look. So from Sandwich to Orleans, some 45,000 people who live north of Route 6 are required to get approval from local historic committees for solar installations that are visible from a public way. Over the last few decades, many property owners who’ve had their solar plans challenged or denied have described the committees’ decisions as inconsistent, arbitrary, and subjective.

But the committees remain steadfast: tourists and locals alike love seeing historic buildings preserved. And solar panels on the front of a house can read like billboards for modernity.

“When you start messing with the street view of your house, we have a legal right, on behalf of the public, to make a judgment of the appropriateness of it,” said Jim Wilson, administrative counsel for the Old Kings Highway Regional Historic District Committee, which sets standards and hears appeals of rulings by town committees.

The preservationists’ mandate is only to approve solar panels on homes when they present a minimal visual impact on the neighborhood. And that standard is often the source of the argument: what defines a minimum visual impact?

To be sure, the historic committees have made changes to accommodate solar. Now, homeowners who want to install all-black panels on all-black roofs on houses built less than 75 years ago don’t have to plead their case to town historic committees.

“You don't have to go through a hearing,” Wilson said. “You simply fill out this form, show us that you meet the criteria for an exemption, and that's all you have to do.”

For solar proponents, that’s a good start.

“This exemption is sort of a game changer,” said Angela Hemmila, a partner at Solar Rising, a solar company based in Mashpee. “It's just proof that they’re listening, and they're trying to work with us.”

But, she said, even with the exemption, it’s still more costly and time-consuming to install solar panels in the historic district. That puts Cape Cod customers in a bind.

“Cape Cod has the highest electric rates in the state,” Hemmila said. “The reality of it is that the people that live in these houses are being charged an astronomical amount from the utility, and installing solar is a great way to combat that.”

It's a reality familiar to Yarmouth resident John Beach. Even though he only has panels on the back of his house, he has seen a 50% drop in his electric bills. And these days, he and his wife frequently check the solar app on their phones to monitor how much energy they’re using.

“If we see a little blip in the chart, I'll say, ‘Oh, you left the stove on too long,’ or she'll tell me, ‘Oh, you took too long a shower,’” he said.

Legislation proposed by state Sen. Julian Cyr, a Democrat who represents the Cape, could define solar panels in historic districts as public necessities, just like utility poles and wires. If that bill becomes law, historic committees would have far less power over solar approvals.

And that could allow John Beach to install solar panels also on the front of his house – where he wanted them all along.

Eve Zuckoff covers the environment and human impacts of climate change for CAI.

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