East Lansing Sets Rules for Solar Panel Installation in Historic Districts

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Tuesday, December 10, 2019, 7:30 am
Chris Gray

In advance of taking back up tonight the question of whether to shrink or expand one of East Lansing’s historic districts, the East Lansing City Council has passed an ordinance aimed at easing the path for property owners wishing to install solar panels on their properties in the City’s historic districts.

With concerns about carbon-based energy production reaching an all-time high, the expectation is that more eco-conscious East Lansing property owners may soon be seeking to install solar panels on their historic district properties.

East Lansing has six historic districts (see map), all spanning residential neighborhoods clustered around Grand River Avenue.

The new ordinance amends the statutes governing the City’s historic districts to add specific regulations around solar technology for the first time.

“We’re really happy to be ahead of the eight-ball,” said Jake Parcell, a community development analyst in East Lansing’s Planning & Zoning unit and the City’s Historic Preservation Officer, about this issue.

The changes in the City’s laws about historic districts are intended to advance the City’s Climate Sustainability Plan while avoiding installations that would result in the permanent loss of significant, character-defining features of historic structures, such as by altering existing roof lines or dormers.

Federal historic preservation guidelines are concerned with maintenance of permanent historic features, and solar panels are typically considered non-permanent because they can generally be mounted on a roof and later removed if desired, without substantial changes to original structures.

The new East Lansing ordinance encourages the placement of the panels so that they sit on or just a few inches above the roofline, to minimize how much they detract from a structure’s historic appearance.

The ordinance also allows for applications to install solar panels on the ground or on accessory buildings.

“I think this sets it up so language is flexible enough,” said Council Member Mark Meadows before the Council’s unanimous vote in favor on December 3.

The Council amended the proposed ordinance from what was submitted before Tuesday’s meeting to remove language designed to discourage installation of solar panels conspicuous from the street in historic districts.

Mayor Pro Tem Aaron Stephens insisted on this change, saying that solar panels must face south in the Northern Hemisphere. He was concerned that owners of a property on the north side of a street might be denied the ability to install panels. (In fact, solar panels are usually pointed south in the north, but this is not the only way to install them.)

Stephens ultimately said he was comfortable with the language that passed but said that, “If there are denials, I want to know if this is working or not.”

Diane Wing, Vice Chair of the Historic District Commission, said after the meeting that guidelines for federally designated historic districts are set by the Secretary of the Interior, and East Lansing’s Commission modeled the language in the ordinance after those standards.

Wing said the heavy lifting in the ordinance was done by former Council Member Shanna Draheim, who helped with a draft that came before the Historic District Commission at its October meeting.

The Commission also debated rules for wind power and large batteries that store energy, but determined that wind power was unlikely to have much demand in residential neighborhoods and that batteries would most likely be stored out-of-sight, indoors. That would put them out of the Commission’s purview.

Wing said that the Interior Department’s sustainability rules would help the Commission guide the approval of other environmental add-ons, such as green roofs — where plants are placed on top of a building to help reduce a building’s net carbon use.

“Everybody was very open to the discussion, understanding that this type of technology will likely become more prevalent,” Wing said in an interview with East Lansing Info. “It was practical as a body that we have the right provisions in place when an applicant comes in front of us.”

Wing said that now, if a homeowner wants to install solar panels that will be visible from the street, the plan will need to be approved by the Commission. Panels that face away from the street or are secluded in a backyard can be approved administratively by City staff.

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