As homeowners flock to alternative sources of energy, the popularity of solar panels has risen dramatically.
Tax breaks and other incentives for installing the panels, plus the opportunity to lease rather than purchase, have made them that much more appealing to homeowners.
But the boom of interest in roof-affixed solar panels has also led the Historic District Landmarks Commission staff to study how the energy-saving devices are used in other historic cities and to recommend guidelines for their use in the 14 historic districts citywide where the HDLC reviews changes to building exteriors.
A public hearing on proposed restrictions is slated for Oct. 8, during the regular meeting of the New Orleans Historic District Landmarks Commission.
Of 119 applications submitted in 2012 and 2013, 105 were approved either at staff level, by the commission, or by the City Council (on appeal).
Applications were considered on a case-by-case basis relative to the architectural and historic significance of the building.
“We were asked by the solar energy industry to look into finding ways that would make installing panels a little simpler and easier for residents,” said Elliott Perkins, executive director of the Historic District Landmarks Commission.
“We understand that the roof installed panels are visible, especially if a house has a driveway that can provide sight lines,” Perkins said. “But the goal of the proposed guidelines is to make the panels as minimally obtrusive as possible.”
For development of the proposed amendments to guidelines, the HDLC staff turned to other historic cities to understand “best practices” employed across the nation. The staff discovered the most restrictive guidelines in Boston; New York; Charleston, South Carolina; Providence, Rhode Island; and Washington, allowing panels only when they are not visible from the public right of way.
Rules in Baltimore, Pittsburgh and San Antonio are slightly more lenient, allowing for installation of panels in minimally visible locations.
A primary source in developing the guidelines was a study prepared by the National Alliance of Preservation Commissions.
“Sample Guidelines for Solar Panels in Historic Districts,” by Kimberly Kooles, of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, suggests a wide variety of locations where panels could be installed, including free-standing arrays, historic accessory buildings on site, new construction on site, and the “primary historic resource,” meaning the primary building on the site.
In all cases, visibility is the main factor, but other considerations include ensuring that the original historic roofing fabric remains in place.
Generally, panels are expected to be the same color as the roof material, low-profile (rising no more than 8 inches above the roof), installed in rectangular arrays, low contrast (panel and frames the same color), and conforming to the roof slope.
The proposed amendments prohibit installing panels on roof slopes facing the street and requiring them to be set back a minimum of 10 feet from a home’s street-facing wall.
The proposal also requires that panels be installed at least 12 inches from the roof ridge and at least 12 inches above the eave.
The proposed changes are less restrictive than regulations currently in effect, which prohibit installation of the panels on the side slopes of many roofs because of visibility from certain vantage points.
“We discovered that panels will draw the eye to them no matter where they are on the roof, if they’re installed in irregular arrays and if there’s a lot of contrast in color between the panel and frame,” said Perkins. “Those are the kind of installations the updated guidelines would discourage.”
In July, HDLC Deputy Director Eleanor Burke notified neighborhood associations and preservationists of the proposed revisions to solar panel guidelines and solicited comments in advance of a public hearing slated for Thursday, Oct. 8, during the regularly scheduled meeting of the New Orleans Historic District Landmarks Commission.
Proposals call for solar panels to be installed only on roof slopes that do not face the street, at a minimum distance from the roof ridge of 12 inches, and a minimum distance above the eave of 12 inches.
The proposed amendments call for panels to be set back a minimum of 10 feet from the street-facing wall of a building and for conduits and accessory equipment to be installed in such a way as to minimize visibility.
The proposed changes are less restrictive than those currently in effect, which prohibit installation of the panels on the side slopes of many roofs.