Zoning Practice — May 2009

Ask the Author

Here are reader questions answered by Gail Feldman and Dan Marks, AICP, authors of the April 2009 Zoning Practice article "Balancing the Solar Access Equation."

Question from Robert Miklo, City of Iowa City, Iowa:

Are there examples of solar panels being installed in historic districts in a manner that is compatible with the Secretary of the Interiors Standards for historic properties?

Answer from author Dan Marks, AICP:

I don't have any specific information on this, and the issue has not yet arisen in Berkeley. My understanding of the Secretary of Interior Standards is that they should not preclude solar panels on the roofs of designated buildings — unless the roof itself is identified as one of the character-defining features of the building. Similar standards apply to historic districts — although I suspect in the case of a district, the intrusion of visible panels would be inconsistent with the intent of most historic districts which is generally to preserve the overall character of an area as it appeared at some point in time. But, I want to stress that I am not an expert in the standards and would defer to others experience and knowledge.

Question from Gail Owings, Kent County, Maryland:

Maryland established a goal to have 20 percent of its energy supplied by clean renewable sources. We are receiving inquiries concerning commercial and utility scale (100 acres plus) solar proposals. As a result the county is appointing a task force to study the wide range of clean renewable resources at the residential, commercial, and utility scale. I found the Zoning Practice report to be very helpful with regards to residential solar. Do you have any suggestions concerning the larger scale installations or any sources for information?

Answer from author Dan Marks, AICP:

Given that we are largely built out, we have not faced this issue in terms of local land use policy. However, the California Energy Commission does have to address this issue to authorize permits for siting utility scale generation and transmission systems. Interestingly, it has been transmission that has been more hotly contested. Most of the high potential renewable sites are in remote locations and siting is not a big problem. However, being remote, they require new transmission lines into populated regions. One hotly contested project was the Sunrise line in Southern California.

You may want to visit the CEC site for more information on its processes: www.energy.ca.gov/siting/.

Question from Cory Wilkinson, AICP:

The City of New Orleans historical commission recently decided that a homeowner had to remove solar panels from a rooftop. Can a local commission/board with oversight for a historic district listed on the National Register of Historic Places deny solar access to a homeowner on the basis of historic preservation?

Answer from author Dan Marks, AICP:

Generally, historic properties are subject to state and local ordinance, which differs significantly from community to community (this is certainly the case within California). In California, by state law, local jurisdiction are essentially precluded from regulating solar installations on homes for aesthetic reasons, so we cannot say no to a solar installation on designated historic properties. I can't say what Louisiana law says on this issue.

Although I'm not an expert in historic preservation, my understanding is that a National Register designation does not necessarily provide any special protection to a designated property outside of whatever is provided for under local ordinance — or any contract that may have been entered into related to some form of tax credit in exchange for restoring or maintaining the property. In other words, unless Louisiana law trumps local ordinances in regard to solar installations, I suspect a local ordinance requiring approval of exterior modifications to properties (including solar installations) would likely apply.