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Pitting Environmental Preservation Against Historic Charm

Strict historic preservation codes often favor aesthetic interests over energy-saving initiatives like solar panels — but the material and financial considerations play a part, too.

A ground-mounted solar array with “coyote fence” surrounding the system, in Santa Fe (courtesy Positive Energy Solar)

SANTA FE, New Mexico — If you hike up the hill behind Santa Fe Prep, a private middle and high school on the edge of the city’s Eastside historic district, you can see a solar installation across three of the school’s roofs. Administrators estimate the panels, installed between the summer of 2018 and the winter of 2019 with the help of a $450,000 anonymous donation, will supply about two thirds of the campus’s power over the year. They’re a point of pride in the school’s campaign to reduce its ecological footprint.

You’d never know any of this from the road: per the historic preservation section of Santa Fe’s land use code, any solar installation in the historic district must be invisible from public thoroughfares. There’s space on the roofs for dozens more panels, but they would have been visible from a roadway. While the city makes exceptions for some publicly visible installations, the standard for obtaining them is murky.

As the price of solar panels has plummeted over the last decade, historic zoning restrictions have become a roadblock to their implementation in many municipalities. Cities like Charleston and New Orleans, which have some of the oldest historic districts in the country, restrict visible solar in some neighborhoods, and suburban municipalities in Illinois and Massachusetts have outright blocked solar developments on aesthetic grounds.

The tensions are most apparent in cities like Santa Fe and Washington, DC, which have declared climate emergencies. Santa Fe passed a resolution in 2018 that pledged to eliminate the city’s emissions by 2040, and DC’s parallel declaration specifically mandates that 10% of electricity come from rooftop solar by 2032. Meanwhile, nearly a fifth of DC’s buildings have a historic designation, which means that any solar developments must go through the historic review office.

The aesthetic visions codified in the historic districts often serve material goals. Santa Fe’s historic Eastside was created in 1967 as the culmination of a 50 year push to, in the words of historian Chris Wilson, “transform [Santa Fe] into a harmonious Pueblo-Spanish fantasy through speculative restoration.” From 1912 onward, historic buildings that didn’t fit the mold were torn down and replaced with the buff-walled, tile-trimmed hallmarks of what’s now known as the “New-Old Santa Fe Style.”

The hope was that this constructed historicity would create, according to the historic zoning ordinance’s general purpose statement, “a harmonious outward appearance” to, among other things, “preserve property values and attract tourists.”

Washington, DC’s historic districts expanded in the ’60s as part of a national “urban pioneering” movement, and while credited with reenergizing some historic areas, the expansion has also been accused of pushing out black residents.

Which means that the tradeoff between solar development and historic charm may really be about weighing material benefits. On the one hand is climate change mitigation, and on the other is marketability.

Historic preservation officials, for their part, say they don’t want to stand in the way of solar. Steve Callcott, Washington, DC’s deputy historic preservation officer, says that the vast majority of solar installations pass his office smoothly. Of the 1500 installations in historic areas that his office has overseen, he says, “We’ve had exactly 14 cases that have gone to the board for further review.” Only a handful of those were eventually sent back for redesigns.

But even if historic codes aren’t overtly hostile to solar development, unclear rules can chill enthusiasm. Sections of Santa Fe’s land use code encourage green energy development, even when publicly visible, while other language seems to preclude it. Lisa Roach, the city’s historic preservation manager, says that those contradictions in the code have cascaded into inconsistent approval processes.

“Ambiguity is what often leads to disputes in the community at large,” agrees Christopher Fortson, marketing manager of New Mexico’s Positive Energy Solar. “If one project is allowed to be done a certain way, but not another, it creates an undue burden on everyone. No one wants to chase a moving target.” Even if exceptions can be made to the rules, people may not know about them, and not pursue solar in the first place.

Solar installation on historic Santa Fe home in conjunction with renovations done by Lightfoot, Inc. (courtesy Positive Energy Solar)

Roach is in the process of drafting an official memo that will favor a more permissive interpretation of city code. When it’s done, she hopes, “Even if your solar panels are publicly visible in the historic districts, as long as they are not obscuring character defining architectural features, then it’s okay if we can see them.” That doesn’t necessarily mean that solar will have a blanket thumbs-up. Projects will still need to clear historical review, and may be restricted on particularly notable roofs.

In an ideal world, she says, historic preservation and sustainability can be aligned. “If we focus on preserving and improving what we have, that is a much more effective strategy at reducing our carbon footprint than trying to build new, greener buildings,” she says. “And certainly, rooftop solar is a way of preserving and reusing historic buildings.” Callcott echoes her point, noting that DC’s commitment to historic preservation allowed it to avoid “the mistakes” of the midcentury intercity highway-building craze that tore apart neighborhoods.

Still, there will be tradeoffs. “It’s always a negotiation between values, that yes, we value rooftop solar, but we also want to make sure that we are not impacting the historic integrity of a home that has character that is important to all of us.”

Both Roach and Callcott emphasized that there are always workarounds, in the form of solar roof tiles or camouflaging “skins” that match panels to the color of the roof. But those aesthetic fixes don’t come cheap. Callcott says that a skin can add around 10 percent to the cost of a project, while reducing the efficiency of the panels. And drawn-out design and review processes can be a disincentive for interested homeowners in the first place. In Santa Fe, there are financial hardship waivers available — but these also require application processes.

To some, any impediment to emissions reduction is unconscionable in a period of declared climate emergency. As the urban sustainability blog Greater Greater Washington put it, “We lose the forest for the trees if we preserve historic buildings for an ultimately uninhabitable future.”

Santa Fe Prep’s headmaster Jim Leonard, for his part, says that he’s “ecstatic” with Santa Fe Prep’s solar installation, even though there’s enough unused roof space for dozens more panels. But after a moment of reflection, he says, “If we’d been able to put solar [on the rest of the roof], we would have.”

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