Construction of ground-mounted solar in Bavaria, Germany by Windwärts Energie licensed under Creative Commons.

To help meet DC’s goal of generating 100% of its energy renewably by 2032 and 10% with solar power by 2041, a zoning change approved Monday makes it easier to build community solar “farms” on the ground and atop garages. But, not surprisingly, some people object, wanting neighbors to have opportunities to speak up in opposition before any solar installations can be built.

Meanwhile, DC’s historic preservation office continues to argue that solar panels and other green features are okay as long as they’re not really visible, but staving off climate change is not as important as keeping old buildings’ roofs looking the same.

Zoning changed to speed community solar

DC zoning allows “matter of right” development, where for instance someone can build a house in a residential zone without a community hearing. There are also “special exceptions,” which tend to be allowed but require hearings. Right now, even in residential zones, utility construction requires a special exception so people can potentially object to, or ask for mitigating measures for, things like power substations.

Until recently, that included gound solar installations and solar canopies. As Department of Energy and the Environment director Tommy Wells explained,

We anticipate 50-70 community solar projects, supported by $10-23 million in public funding, to be permitted and built this year. This significant funding comes with a requirement that the projects be completed by the close of this fiscal year. Many projects also include private investment, which may be put at risk by the added uncertainty and extended timeframe imposed by a special exception. This year’s projects are part of an even larger pipeline of 22 megawatts (MW) of planned community solar projects. They are funded by the Solar for All (SfA) program, an initiative mandated by District law, through 2021.

Community Solar is an arrangement by which solar panels are installed on one site, and the monetary value of the energy benefits is attributed to off-site residents (subscribers). This was the Council’s intent in enacting the Community Renewable Energy Amendment Act of 2013. DOEE’s Solar for All grant-funded projects are required to provide 100% of the value of the solar installation’s electricity to low-income households, at no cost. This requirement can often be realized more efficiently through a community solar model.

Wells added that “Community solar developers often must secure financing within a short timeframe to move forward with their projects. Requiring developers to obtain a BZA variance would result in applications for variances for the 50-70 Community Solar Facilities. Without [a zoning change], completion of these projects would be in jeopardy.”

In a proposed change to the zoning code, the Office of Planning recommended that community solar be “matter of right,” subject to the same height and yard standards as other buildings in the zone. So if you can build a home on a lot that needs 10-foot setbacks and can be 40 feet high, then so can a community solar farm. The DC Zoning Commission approved this as an emergency rule change in February.

Subsequently, it held hearings on the matter and in meetings over the last few months, asked OP to repeatedly scale back the scope of what can be allowed as-of-right, from 5 acres, to 2, to 1.5 acres. It asked for more screening and buffering rules, and so OP added a rule that ground-level solar panels have to be set back from the edges of adjancent residential properties by 40 feet.

The Zoning Commission took “proposed action” to approve that version of the rule on June 10, and approved the change on Monday, July 29. Peter May, the representative from the National Park Service, still opposed the change and suggested further shrinking it down, citing a petition they received with 73 signatures which he called unusual. However, Rob Miller, a mayoral appointee, argued that what’s is less visually intrusive and will have less parking impact than the houses allowed as-of-right. The commission approved it on a vote of 4 to 1.

The Committee of 100 and others still oppose

In the record are several letters from solar installers who said they already had to scale back or suspend some planned installations because of the 40 foot rule, including some “carport canopies” atop what are now parking areas. One, SaveSolar, said it had to remove one carport canopy, and, “The energy from this canopy would otherwise have lowered the energy bills of around 20 low-income residents by 50% for a 15 year period.”

On the flip side, a number of neighbors and the Committee of 100, DC’s oldest and most change-averse planning organization, argued that residents need the right to ask for further changes or screening on solar farms.

Several neighbors objected to a project by Catholic Charities in the Woodridge neighborhood in northeast DC, which included almost 5,000 solar panels, each about 7 feet high, amid a large 14-acre grassy field. This project would still require special exception review under the more limited rule, but the Committee of 100 and representative Caroline Petti have continued to oppose the amendment, saying that neighbors ought to have a say in any solar farms (despite the extra time and expense of hearings).

Petti argued, in her most recent testimony, that a special exception is “not an onerous process” because, for instance, a 3.8 acre ground-mounted community solar project at Oxon Run “took less than six months” to win special exception approval. Wells’ testimony, on the other hand, suggests that a six month delay could pose quite a barrier. Petti suggested limiting the matter-of-right zoning to only Solar for All projects or ones guaranteed to serve low-income residents, and that “There is no question that solar arrays of this potential size will affect abutting neighbors and could affect sensitive park areas.”

To some extent, the arguments in the letters in the record aren’t specific to solar; while DC has matter-of-right development, it’s not universally supported, and some people clearly feel adjacent residents ought to be able to object to, or even block, anything being built nearby if they wish. After all, if solar panels might affect neighbors, so would buildings, which could be matter-of-right.

The clear question for DC policy is how to balance these issues. At the moment, on the solar question, the District government is coming down clearly on the side of renewable energy.

Except in historic districts, at least.

Historic guidlines haven’t changed much

On Thursday, August 1, DC’s Historic Preservation Review Board will again discuss proposed guidelines for sustainability in historic districts. Many recommendations in the guidelines support sustainability, such as discouraging people from paving over their front or rear yards, and preserving trees.

However, the guidelines also discourage putting solar panels on roofs where they can be seen from the street. I criticized the first version of the guidelines which even said they shouldn’t be visible from the street at all. Since then, the preservation office softened that language to say this:

For buildings with flat roofs, locate green roofs and solar installations back from the front edge of the roof (and from the exposed side edge for corner properties) to minimize their visibility from public street view.

For buildings with sloped roofs, locate solar installations on secondary elevations to minimize their visibility from public street view, away from roof edges and ridges. Use low-profile panels set flush with the roof and in a complementary color with the roof finish to avoid a discordant or visually obtrusive appearance.

Some have argued that solar panels ought to lie outside the purview of historic preservation entirely. “Temporary” features, such as blinds, awnings, antennas, or gutters or downspouts, don’t get reviewed by the preservation office at all because they don’t require permits. Solar panels are similar to these, and like these tend to have much shorter lifespan than the building itself.

Barring that interpretation, however, the preservation office could more reasonably say that front-facing panels are fine but should be, to the extent possible, flush with the roof and a compatible color. That’s what the preservation board (which gives the mostly-final word on preservation decisions, either upholding or overturning the preservation office’s staff recommendation) said about a Takoma house in February.

The staff recommended against allowing solar panels in the front, but the board disagreed and allowed the panels. A dissenter was architect Outerbridge Horsey VII, who said he’s LEED accredited and all that, but isn’t okay with solar panels if they mean more black roofs in Takoma.

The actions of the District government, Zoning Commission, and preservation bodies may well help determine whether the District’s historic buildings exist at all in the future.