A values debate: green vs. historic

The Baltimore Sun

Chuck Weikel wants to grow a garden of drought-resistant grass on his roof, figuring it would cool his house more than the black rubber covering.

While environmentalists are embracing "green roofs" on buildings, Weikel's home isn't ordinary: He lives on one of Annapolis' most colorful, historic streets.

Weikel plans to stand before the city's Historic Preservation Commission next week with the first applications for a green roof and a front yard rain barrel in the Historic District, forcing the panel to take up the question of whether allowing green construction can co-exist with its mission of protecting the city's Colonial heritage.

"I think from a philosophical standpoint, there would be a tension between historic preservation of a significant residence and green technology," said Sharon Kennedy, commission chairwoman. She declined to discuss the merits of a specific request before the commission.

The commission, which consists of a seven-member panel appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the City Council, reviews all building permits for facades within the Historic District.

While it has limited enforcement abilities, the panel is known for its strict decisions, once rejecting a resident's plastic rose lattice or, more recently, requiring Starbucks to shrink its sign on the front of the Maryland Inn.

The commission forbids replacing historic windows with energy-efficient, two-pane modern ones.

Suzanne Pogell of the Spa Creek Conservancy, a volunteer organization dedicated to the stewardship of the watershed, has been working with Weikel and said the panel needs to become more lenient to allow homeowners to use green technology. She said it's better for safety, monetary and environmental reasons.

Green roofs, she said, act as a rain sponge. Rainwater that skims over an impervious surface like a street, rooftop or sidewalk picks up everything on that surface before being funneled into downspouts and sent into rivers and creeks. This water, polluted with car oil, garbage, pesticides and fertilizer, harms life in the Chesapeake Bay.

"It's going to cost more in the short run," Pogell said, adding that the savings in terms of air conditioning and heating costs and the reduction in carbon dioxide emissions make up for it in the long run.

Weikel estimated a green roof could cost anywhere from $1,500 to $10,000, depending on the size.

In general, Kennedy said, green methods could be applied to additions. Several years ago, the commission approved a green roof on a new portion of a rehabbed residence on St. Mary's Street.

In addition, the Severn Savings Bank building on outer West Street opened last year with a green roof, and Anne Arundel County has been pushing for them on municipal buildings as well as at private businesses.

The city's parking and transportation coordinator, Weikel lives in a brick home with blue shutters on the series of houses that make up "Rainbow Row." The front of Weikel's home dates to 1859. The back was added in 1900.

Although Weikel's rubber roof is not historic, it is unclear whether his home can withstand the weight of the new roof and whether the roof installation would cause other problems, said Patricia Blick, the city's new historic preservation chief. She provides expertise to the commission and makes recommendations.

Blick recommended that the commission reject Weikel's proposal for a rain barrel, because Conduit Street homes do not have front yards -- porches abut the bricked sidewalks. She said that the barrel would have to be on the sidewalk, which would obstruct the public's right of way.

Weikel said the rain barrel would allow him to water his plants in the grassy cutouts of the sidewalk without carrying buckets of water from his back yard. The barrel, covered on top with mesh to keep insects out, would catch rainwater pouring from a downspout. At the bottom is a tap that can be connected to a garden or soaker hose.

"In a good, heavy rainstorm, you can fill up a 55-gallon drum in a half-hour," said Elvia Thompson of the Spa Creek Conservancy, which has launched a push to get homeowners in the watershed to install rain barrels. "It's amazing how much water is collected off your roof."

Weikel intends to put a lined, wooden, whiskey barrel in front of his home, not unlike those that were a familiar sight during Colonial times before the days of indoor plumbing.

Blick commended Weikel for trying to find historic materials, but she said the issue revolved around the public's right of way.

The commission is scheduled to review Weikel's proposal for the roof and the addition of a rain barrel at a public hearing at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the city council chamber.

The Spa Creek Conservancy will hold a workshop on rain barrels from 6:15 p.m. to 7:15 p.m. tomorrow at 15 German St.

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