As solar energy use grows, communities seek to balance history, technology

The historic Rodgers Forge neighborhood in Towson has adopted guidelines for residents who want to install solar panels, an effort community leaders hope can strike a balance between preserving the community's architecture and embracing alternative energy.

A committee of the Rodgers Forge Community Association worked for about a year to come up with the recommendations, which the full board approved in September, according to immediate past president Stu Sirota.

"I think this shows that Rodgers Forge is a progressive neighborhood that cares about its history and maintaining the architectural integrity of its homes, while still being able to allow a modern and innovative green technology," Sirota said.

The neighborhood of mostly English-style row homes was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2009 as a "prototypical example" of suburban row house communities built between the late 1920s and mid-1950s, according to the Maryland Historical Trust.

The committee to consider guidelines for solar panels formed after resident Dora Jacobs asked to install panels on her roof about 18 months ago. Under community guidelines, Rodgers Forge residents must get approval from the community association' architecture committee before making exterior changes to their homes.

The committee initially denied Jacobs' request because it lacked rules regarding solar panels.

Although solar panels have become more common in both business and residential settings, installing them on historic properties and in historic districts can raise some controversy. National Trust for Historic Preservation guidelines recommend placing panels out of sight and caution against damaging roofs, dormers, chimneys or other features of a historic home.

Sirota said the package adopted by Rodgers Forge, "sets the bar pretty high in terms of which properties are ... eligible."

Among the new guidelines: Panels must be located in areas that minimize visibility from the public thoroughfare, and installed at angles consistent with the pitch of the roof. Panels cannot be mounted more than a few inches above the roof surface, and they cannot be installed in front yards or on front roofs facing a primary street.

Sirota said if people install solar panels according to the guidelines, it won't affect the neighborhood's historic designation — or jeopardize renovation tax credits that are eligible to historic properties.

"I would like to think that others will model future guidelines on what we've done," he said.

Ironically, Jacobs said last week she's no longer planning to use solar panels — the company she planned to buy them from went out of business. Sirota said so far, no one else in Rodgers Forge has asked to install the technology.

But when they do, the guidelines will be in place. Jacobs said she's happy the association acted, and realizes there is "a tricky balance to strike" between maintaining a home's historic features and using solar technology.

"Those are competing priorities," she said, "but they're not completely incompatible."

Liz Atwood contributed to this story.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Stu Sirota is president of the Rodgers Forge Community Association. He is the former president.

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