"For solar on a historic home, you’ll have to pay"
Preservationists say case-by-case reviews of residential solar installations within historic and conservation districts are necessary to maintain neighborhoods' characters. Solar hot-water panels are visible on this home within the Piedmont Conservation District, but the addition of solar panels would require review
Chris Luedtke, owner of a home within the Piedmont Conservation District, recently discovered that a proposed project to add solar photovoltaic panels must be reviewed and approved by the city's Historic Landmarks Commission (cost $1,300) Dan Carter DJC
Chris and Jessica Luedtke thought putting a solar photovoltaic system on their North Portland home would be no problem.
The house, built in 2007, already had a solar hot water system on its roof and the building was already wired for photovoltaics. After saving up for a few years, the couple hired Gen-Con Inc. to install the solar system.
But when Gen-Con went to the city for building permits, something was amiss. The house isn’t historic, but it’s located within the Piedmont Conservation District. According to city code, any street-facing solar system installed within a historic or conservation district must first be approved by the city’s Historic Landmarks Commission, a process that costs approximately $1,300.
“This was already a serious investment for us,” Jessica Luedtke said. “I’m a part-time teacher and my husband is a nurse. There’s no guarantee we could put the panels up after the review, and the $1,300 isn’t feasible for us on top of the expense of the panels. Now we’re at a standstill.”
The Luedtkes aren’t the only ones having trouble. According to Tim Heron, senior city planner with Portland’s Bureau of Development Services, he has received many phone calls from homeowners within historic and conservation districts saying they’re frustrated because they can’t install solar panels without review.
The city this past summer approved a series of changes to its development code, including a requirement for review of any residential solar project proposed within a historic or conservation district, unless the photovoltaic system would be installed on a home’s back side. Each project would need approval from the Historic Landmarks Commission. Historic and conservation districts are areas within the city where historic structures are concentrated.
“Unfortunately, a lot of the people we’ve heard from recently were not involved in these discussions,” Heron said. “Now, the opportunity to hear concerns has passed and these things are on the books. Conservation and historic districts comprise (less than) 6 percent of the city. Having solar is an amazing thing, but in some areas there are regulations and you can do some things but not others.”
The rules, though troublesome for homeowners, are important for preservation of neighborhoods’ historic character, according to Art DeMuro, chairman of Portland’s Historic Landmarks Commission and president of Venerable Properties. Modern solar photovoltaic systems clearly conflict with historic architecture, DeMuro said, and potential energy savings shouldn’t justify changes to design guidelines put into place by these neighborhoods, and in some cases, the National Register of Historic Places.
“My understanding is that solar industry representatives, as well as homeowners in historic districts, are objecting to the requirements,” DeMuro said. “Installing solar panels on the most visible facades of a building is disruptive to the visual integrity of a district. If efforts are made to amend the regulation to say solar panels are allowed in all places without a review, the commission will mobilize to express opposition to any such plan.”
The main opposition to the rules isn’t so much the hearing process, according to David Richards, a partner with solar installation company RS Energy, but rather the cost. While permits for a solar photovoltaic installation outside of a historic or conservation district may cost approximately $150, the land-use review process with the Historic Landmarks Commission costs approximately $1,300. Richards presently is working to secure approval for a residential solar project within the Piedmont Conservation District.
“The city has been very helpful through this process, but I think the rules are overly strict for a city that wants to encourage solar,” Richards said. “My client was frustrated with the cost and surprised there was such a long process for something they see as adding value to the neighborhood.”
Though homeowners have been frustrated by the cost and process of installing solar panels within historic and conservation districts, Heron said that none of the approximately dozen applications for solar projects in these areas have been denied. The city has heard from what Heron calls a vocal minority of homeowners, but Mayor Sam Adams’ office said there are no plans in the works to alter the code. DeMuro said he has asked the mayor’s office to hold a public hearing on the issue.
The Luedtkes, meanwhile, sympathize with the city’s need to balance renewable energy with historic preservation; however, they wish there were a better, more affordable solution.
“I understand they don’t make these laws in a vacuum and they have good intentions,” said Chris Luedtke. “But here we are trying to purchase locally made solar panels from a local company and we can’t do it.”