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Boards address solar energy

By Staff | Dec 16, 2011

Earlier this week, two items regarding solar energy were tabled in their respective committees due to officials wanting to research the technology further.

On Monday, Washington Street resident Joe Yates went before the Shepherdstown Board of Zoning Appeals to urge the body to turn around the decision the town’s planning commission made in October, denying Yates’ request to place photovoltaics on the street-facing roof of his home. The commission’s decision stemmed from historic guidelines adopted by town council in March 2010.

The same night, the Shepherdstown Historic Landmarks Commission held an open discussion to adjust those very same guidelines.

Currently the guidelines read:

gSolar 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; (i)f freestanding, solar collectors should be located in rear yards or on side faades of a building not readily visible to the public. If side yard locations are readily visible to the public, as on a corner lot, freestanding panels may be installed if they are effectively screened by landscaping, fencing or lattice panels; (s)olar collectors that closely resemble existing roofing materials may be allowed in areas visible to the public.”

While most local participants in the discussion focused their efforts on the language specific to roof-top solar panels, HLC Chair Hank Willard was interested in “finding the best path forward for rationalizing this new technology.” Willard said he had put a lot of thought into harnessing this energy and thought he had a plan to “leapfrog” Shepherdstown ahead of other municipalities, making it a model for solar technology.

Willard’s idea is to find a plot of land in which a “solar farm” could be established. Residents property owners and renters alike could buy into a cooperative situation.

Shepherdstown resident Michelle Liefke, who is a consultant for Mountain View Solar and Wind out of Berkeley Springs, said that could be achievable, perhaps, five to 10 years down the road.

Washington Street resident Than Hitt, who was approved for panels in April on his garage, wondered about the feasibility of getting such a project through the West Virginia Public Service Commission.

Hitt, who said his panels are already supplying half of his energy on his property, spoke about three types of tradeoffs the HLC could look at.

He spoke of the energy production zone of the potential placement of the panels. Hitt said, hypothetically, if the HLC explored language that if the second more productive area on the roof produces 8 to 10 percent more energy than the most productive area, then the second location is the more desirable area. If it’s more than 10 percent of a tradeoff, then it’s not okay.

Hitt also spoke of roof coloration as a tradeoff. He talked about black roofs as a foundation for black panels with black frames. He said while normally black frames are less efficient, this is a tradeoff.

Then Hitt talked about having certain zones in which it was more acceptable than others to have street-facing roofs with solar panels. He said German Street, the main thoroughfare through town with especially low-sloping roofs, might be within a zone of its own for consideration.

“The niche of Shepherdstown is a historic town but these things don’t have to be incompatible,” Hitt said. “There’s going to be more applications.”

He added, “I think we have the fundamental right to harvest the sun.”

Both Hitt and Liefke submitted other towns’ guidelines regarding solar, but Zoning Office Harvey Heyser said that many of them are in the same spirit of Shepherdstown’s guidelines.

Asheville, N.C., guidelines which were presented to the commission state, “(s)olar energy collectors shall be located as inconspicuously as possible while still allowing for reasonable use. Every effort should be made to limit impact to historic character defining features.”

They go on to read, “Installation of solar devices on roof surfaces facing the primary public right-of-way shall be considered only when no other option is possible and there is no detrimental impact to the integrity of the historic structure and the neighborhood. All work must be easily reversible.”

Back in October, Yates said that placing the panels elsewhere on his home would provide at least 30 percent less energy. Yates, who could not join the HLC discussion after the first part of his BZA hearing Monday, is eager to hear what will come of his appeal and the continuing discussion of the solar guidelines.

“The (BZA) meeting went well. It was a good discussion,” he said, noting that the board will reconvene at a later date after researching the technology further. “Which is fine with me because it’s not no.”

He added, “Everyone was really helpful because everyone is trying to see what the best solution will be.”

Yates said one of the points the BZA made was that the HLC is currently looking at reworking the guidelines so officials wondered if it would be worth it to grant an appeal.

“But they’re both moving in the right direction, apparently,” Yates said.

Yates said BZA officials discussed the aesthetics of the panels in Monday’s meeting.

“To me, solar panels are not unattractive. It’s a badge of honor,” he said.

But Yates understands the underlying reason the discussions are happening in the first place.

“I understand historic preservation. I’ve lived in Shepherdstown for 30 years,” he said.

While there is no set date yet for the BZA to reconvene, Yates said officials will discuss in executive session in the meantime. His only concern is whether the federal government will retract green energy incentives given to homeowners.

“It’s a process, and we’ll move forward with it,” he said.

The historic landmarks commissioners will also continue to research the technology and will continue to address reworking the town’s guidelines in upcoming meetings.