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Vote could lead to energy talk

By Staff | Oct 21, 2011

Washington Street resident Joe Yates has considered installing solar panels for years.

But Monday the Shepherdstown Planning Commission denied his application, 6-0 with Commissioner David Springer abstaining, to put photovoltaics on the street-facing roof of his residence.

Yates submitted two applications to the commission. The application to install solar panels on a garage in the back yard of 205 W. Washington St., a residence he owns, was approved; however, the commission denied his application to install the panels on his own home at 207 W. Washington St. due to lack of adherence to the town’s historic guidelines.

According to Yates’ application, he wanted to install 12 solar panels on the home’s south-facing roof, which overlooks Washington Street. The town’s guidelines state, “(s)olar collectors should be located on rear sections of the roof of a building, behind dormers, gables or in other areas not readily visible to the public.”

Yates, who had worked with both the historic landmarks and planning commissions on his application since June, told commissioners while his second option was the east-facing roof, placing the panels there would provide 30 percent less energy.

“The reason I’m requesting the south-facing roof is the difference is enormous,” he said.

At the Oct. 10 meeting of the HLC, which serves as an advisory board to the planning commission, landmarks commissioners were unanimous in denial of the application because it did not fit the guidelines; however, they were united in the idea of alternative energy.

Yates tabled his application for a short time to explore a solar film, which would not be as visible on the roof. But he said it was not economically and environmentally viable, telling commissioners the film was “still significantly inferior” to the panels.

Though Yates told the board he was willing to paint his roof black to make the solar panels less noticeable, planning commissioners still voiced their concern over the issue.

Springer said after learning of all of the options, placing the panels on the street-facing roof was “a tough pill to swallow.”

Commissioner Karene Motivans acknowledged Shepherdstown’s mix of preservationists and progressives.

“As excited as we are about solar, we keep nipping away, nipping away at our historic features,” she said.

Commissioner David Rosen spoke candidly about what this could mean for the planning commission but also stood his ground on the issue.

“This special instance is going to set precedence. I think with our historic homes, we need to hide (solar panels),” he said.

Planning Commission President Josh Stella began a larger discussion of what this could mean for future commission tasks.

“We need to decide if we want to suggest to modify the guidelines or keep them as they are,” he said. “Personally I value the opportunity to get this out there and see what people think.”

Yates and his neighbor Than Hitt, who was approved for solar panels on his garage in April, agree a discussion surrounding the guidelines and Shepherdstown’s energy future is what should be next.

“To me, solar is such an incredibly important issue,” Yates said Tuesday after the meeting. “Guidelines are just that – guidelines.”

“I think it’s unfortunate when applications of green energy are denied, but this is a different issue,” Hitt said, who was present at Monday night’s meeting. “It was clear to me that there’s some concern that the current guidelines might not be sufficient.”

Both Yates and Hitt stressed they appreciate the planning and historic landmarks commission’s efforts in this and all issues they address in town. But, Yates said this is something he believes should be addressed to help the community as a whole.

“I’m doing everything I can to make this a community-supported project,” he said. “(The planning commissioners) feel like their hands are tied. Let’s untie their hands.”

Yates said he wasn’t surprised about the outcome and plans to appeal the decision to the Shepherdstown Board of Zoning Appeals, which could grant a variance to the decision.

Also at Monday’s meeting, the planning commission voted unanimously to recommend Placemakers to town council as a consultant in the development of Rumsey Green off of Route 45, west of town.

According to its website, Placemakers is a firm with offices throughout North America which addresses planning schemes, SmartCode, implementation and marketing.

The next planning commission meeting will take place Monday, Oct. 24 at 7 p.m. at Town Hall.