Rodgers Forge resident leads her historic neighborhood to adoption of solar guidelines

By Corey Ramsden on November 17, 2014

When Dora Jacobs’ mom installed solar panels on her house in Parkville, MD a few years ago, she would watch her net-meter spin backwards whenever electricity produced on their roof flowed back onto the grid.

“That is the coolest thing!,” she remembers thinking as she watched the process for the first time.

Dora is a Vermont native who became familiar with renewable energy after years of working in the property management business. Her company had a number of mixed-use properties throughout Boston, D.C., and Connecticut and mandated that all of its buildings be LEED certified. Many of her friends also work as environmental engineers or in industries that support green buildings, and Dora found that renewable energy and green building strategies were “always something that has been on my mind.”

So, when she and her husband Walker, a Baltimore native, moved to Rodgers Forge in 2012, they began exploring solar for their home, which was located in a National Register Historic District Community. They quickly realized going solar in a Historic District could be a lengthy process that would require love for their neighborhood, patience, and working together with their community association and neighbors in order to achieve lasting change.

Beginning the process

Dora’s first step was to contact an installer for a site review, which was a fairly straightforward process. She then applied to the Rodgers Forge Community Association Architectural Review Committee for a review of her home’s suitability for solar under the Rodgers Forge bylaws governing historic preservation. Her goal was to compromise: allow homeowners to go solar in a manner that would respect and preserve the special character of the neighborhood.

As a community association, while Rodgers Forge did not have the legal authority to enforce restrictions about solar themselves, they could still take a homeowner to court if they deemed a solar installation in violation of the community’s land use covenants. Dora’s aim was to collaborate with the community association and work within their process.

“I wanted to work with the group and make it possible for everyone to have this opportunity,” Dora makes clear.

She appreciates the difficult task Historic Districts face to preserve the unique character of neighborhoods that have developed over the course of many decades. Rodgers Forge, for example, is a 150-acre community of rowhouses just north of Baltimore praised for its tree-lined streets and “especially noteworthy for the quality of its planning, architecture, and construction.” In 2013, Rodgers Forge was named the “best kept secret in Baltimore” by Baltimore Magazine. Beyond just the pride of living in such an historic neighborhood, a Nationally Registered Historic District designation makes homeowners eligible for significant roof replacement tax credits.

As she stated regarding the roof replacement tax credits, “there was a lot on the line here for one neighbor interested in getting solar panels.” She also appreciated that the Historic District could take her to court if they deemed that she had violated her land use covenant by installing the panels without their permission.

The community association board created a special committee to study the issue of whether it was possible to adopt solar guidelines that would not compromise Rodgers Forge national historic registry designation, Maintaining the national registry designation was vital if the community wanted to continue to be eligible for the federal roof replacement tax credits tied to its Historic District status.

Publishing the Guidelines

The process of developing the solar guidelines for the neighborhood took 18 months. Essential to this process was the community association Architectural Review Committee, responsible for reviewing any exterior modifications to homes to ensure they do not jeopardize a home’s historically significant features. Once they were complete, the committee sent them to the Maryland Historic Trust to determine if they would compromise Rodgers Forge historic status. Dora was delighted to hear that they approved the guidelines.

The architectural committee in Dora’s community association developed and approved are listed below, or available on the Rogers Forge Community Association website.   As she explains, “it was a big step forward for them to have allowed this.” Her solar activism has since been profiled in the Baltimore Sun, as has the work of other homeowners living in historic districts in Maryland.

Advice on moving forward in your neighborhood

As more homeowners in historic districts go solar, the National Alliance of Preservation Commissions has responded by publishing these sample guidelines for solar systems in historic districts. As the circumstances of each historic district or community association are unique, it is important to remember that each situation should be approached on a case-by-case basis. It is important to note that historic districts have greater authority over the installation of solar systems that non-historic community associations, which are prevented from creating unreasonable restrictions against solar systems in Maryland.

CPN and MD SUN are proud to work with homeowners like Dora, who are leading the charge for solar across the nation! If you are working on bringing solar power to your neighborhood, want help, or have helped your community adopt guidelines on solar please let us know on the MD SUN Listserv!

Rodgers Forge Community Association Guidelines on Solar System Installation (also available online here under “Solar System Installation”):

  • Solar panels should be placed in areas that minimize their visibility from the public thoroughfare.
  • Solar panels must not require alterations to significant or characterdefining features of a historic resource, such as altering existing rooflines or dormers.
  • Solar panel installations should be reversible, avoiding solar roof tiles, glazes and laminates if possible.
  • Solar panels must be mounted no higher than a few inches above the roof surface.
  • Solar panels must be set at angles consistent with the pitch of the roof, keeping a low profile, and must not extend beyond the existing roofline.
  • Solar panels and equipment must have non-reflective finishes.
  • Any mechanical equipment attached to the building fascia must be painted the same color as the fascia.
  • Solar panels must not be located in the front yard or front roof facing a primary street.
  • Solar collectors must comply with the requirements of Maryland’s statewide building codes as well as any local codes.

In addition, the applicants are required to submit the following:

  • Photographs of the house and existing roof, in context
  • Proof of valid local business licenses for all contractors and subcontractors
  • Detailed roof plan drawing of proposed installation – must be to scale, and include all dimensions
  • Technical specifications and color of solar collectors