Battle over solar panels pits preservation against environmentalism

May 31, 2012 by  
Filed under Green Energy News

ST. LOUIS • Bob Hiscox wants solar panels on his roof.

Energy costs are rising. Hiscox is increasingly concerned about the environment. And government rebates could help him fund the $45,000 cost.

But his building, the Soulard Bastille Bar on Russell Boulevard south of downtown, has a roof that faces the street. And that means his solar array would break neighborhood rules. Soulard, a local and national historic district, does not allow visible panels.

“I’m just sick to my stomach,” Hiscox said. “I don’t get this.”

Hiscox’s heartache highlights a fight simmering from coast to coast.

How does a historic neighborhood hang onto that certain je ne sais quoi and still change with the times? How does it ooze history and romance, and still find space for solar panels and satellite dishes?

“Nationally, they’ve been dealing with it a lot, in historic districts in New Jersey, California, across the nation,” said Ryan Reed, a preservation specialist with the Landmarks Association of St. Louis, which fights to save historic structures.

But no one, Reed said, has produced guidelines that make all parties happy.

Soulard is one of the oldest sections of the city. Its 150-year-old homes, perky mansard roofs and redbrick rows invite visitors to meander the streets — and boost property values across the neighborhood.

If the rooflines get broken by enough new gadgets, nearly all parties agree, the feel of Soulard might change.

“Think of it like a puzzle,” Reed continued. “If you’re missing so many pieces, you can’t tell what the picture is.”

The problem, said St. Louis architectural historian Michael Allen, is that many historic guidelines were written 40 years ago. The city’s three oldest historic preservation districts — Hyde Park, Lafayette Square and Soulard — were created in the 1970s, Allen said, with strict rules to prevent bad business signs, cheap windows, rooftop decks and backyard lean-tos.

“They weren’t hoping to keep out solar panels,” he said. “They were guidelines for their future. Now those aspirations have been realized.”

Are rain barrels and solar panels, he asked, corrupting neighborhood standards? Historic guidelines, Allen said, need to be revised.

This is far from the first time an area business has tried to incorporate new technology into historic renovation.

The city’s Cultural Resources Office has approved solar panels before — though only when they’re hidden, or nearly so.

Washington University successfully petitioned the city Preservation Board, which hears preliminary reviews, borderline cases and appeals on such issues, to mount 6-foot-tall wind turbines on the top of its three-story building on Delmar Boulevard in the Skinker-DeBalivere Historic District.

And rehabbers are constantly at odds with local and state guidelines over window replacements.

Just this past month, Alderman Jennifer Florida complained that a project in her ward, south of Tower Grove Park, couldn’t put in double-paned vinyl windows, despite their energy efficiency. State historic tax credit guidelines called for wooden windows — but replacing the originals with double-paned wood was, she said, prohibitively expensive.

“You’re ultimately adapting a 110-year-old structure for today’s use,” she said. “But energy efficiency should be non-negotiable.”

“We have these old ways of doing things,” she continued.

Even Betsy Bradley, director of the Cultural Resources Office, says it might be time to review Soulard’s regulations. The city’s ordinance says the standards should be rewritten every 10 years. Soulard’s have not been revised since 1991.

That, however, would be too late for Hiscox. This month, he lost the first round in his fight to sidestep the historic guidelines. The city’s preservation board voted 4-2 against his request.

Hiscox tried to show that the solar panels wouldn’t offend anyone. He offered to put up six temporary panels prior to any permanent construction. He got 14 pages of signatures from neighbors.

But Bradley denied the temporary demonstration. She said she wanted to help Hiscox but could find no mechanism for permitting the temporary erection of such items.

And the Preservation Board sided with the Soulard Restoration Group, which wrote the guidelines and opposed the panels. Bradley, in her report to the board, noted that the surrounding buildings were historic, that Hiscox’s panels would be “entirely visible” and that Russell was an important thoroughfare into Soulard.

Approving the project, she concluded, “would indicate that the visibility of solar collectors in a historic district is not a concern. The Soulard Historic District Standards, in several ways, indicate that a visually dominant solar panel installation on a street-facing public façade is not compatible with the historic character of the district.”

Hiscox readily acknowledges that it’s not just about going green. The Bastille has a walk-in cooler, four compressors, air conditioning and electric heat. He said his electric bill runs from $500 to about $1,800 per month.

“It’s rough out here,” he said. “I was just trying to save money and have some fun. So much for that.”

Hiscox says he has already spent $6,500 for a new, black roof to match the anticipated solar panels (though he needed the new roof anyway), plus $15,000 in early panel costs, which he is hoping to recoup. One of the solar panels, he said, is still sitting in his kitchen.

“To say the least,” he continued, “I won’t be spending too much more money in the neighborhood.”

Advocates and city leaders don’t expect this problem to go away soon.

But they do think it will change. Technology will reduce the size of solar panels — there are already shingle-size cells out in some communities. And perceptions will adapt, too.

“Some people don’t like the look of solar,” said Heidi Schoen, executive director of the Missouri Solar Energy Industries Association. “To me, it’s beautiful.”

Comments are closed.