After more than an hour of heated discussion and awkward procedurals, former state Rep. and ex-mayoral candidate Mike Villarreal will finally be able to install 13 additional solar panels on his home in the King William Historic District. But Villarreal won’t be installing these panels with the Historic and Design Review Commission‘s approval. The HDRC failed to make a recommendation on Wednesday and so the project essentially received approval by default.
Villarreal sees the impasse as a victory for his energy bill, but he’s also hoping to spark a wider dialogue about the perception of solar panels in historical contexts.
“We’re setting a precedent for a larger policy,” he said after the vote. “We are now having a different conversation. We’re talking about embracing solar, not hiding it.”
The commissioners’ and Villarreal’s passionate debate centered around the solar panels’ potential disruption of historic integrity as the 13 panels approved today, part of a larger 45-panel system, will be clearly visible to the passing pedestrian and vehicle traffic on Eagleland Drive. Villarreal’s home is directly across Eagleland Drive from Brackenridge High School, on the edge of the historic district.
The commission typically only approves panels that are hidden or obscured from view.
“Precedent,” is not a word that Shanon Shea Miller, director of the Office of Historic Preservation, uses to describe the HDRC or even City staff decisions when it comes to historic preservation.
“The commission is careful and the staff are careful in our recommendations (to make it clear) that every property is unique and every property is different. It really is a case by case analysis,” Miller said. “We are going to be looking at the policy in general to see if there’s more guidance that we can apply to help the commission and staff make these decisions.”
After its regular meeting on Wednesday, Feb. 17, HDRC commissioners and City staff will listen to perspectives from homeowners, preservationists, solar installers, alternative energy advocates, and the general public for input on new guidelines and policies for solar panels and other sustainability issues in historic districts. The City staff will also start gathering information on best practices across the nation, Miller said, which will be compiled into a draft report that will ultimately inform future guidelines and commission decisions.
The 32 panels that will be installed on the back of the main house and on a rear garage have already been approved, but the key to getting his maximum return on investment– in the form of an energy discount and credit on his electricity bill– were those final, south-facing panels, Villarreal said.
Commissioner Michael Connor (D4) said that, while there were some creative alternatives proposed in an attempt to conceal the panels from view, “I don’t believe that this (historic district) is where we should be experimenting.”
With a reputation for challenging social and political currents at the local and state levels, Villarreal has turned his attention towards advocating for more flexibility in the rules and guidelines for historic homeowners to install solar panels on their roofs – even if the panels are visible from the street.
“My case is bringing to the forefront the misuse of authority of the HDRC,” Villarreal said during an interview Wednesday morning before the vote.
Villarreal is among the hundreds of CPS Energy customers looking to take advantage of indefinite rebates and other incentives for solar energy systems, but according to City code, projects that “alter, restore, rehabilitate, or add” to historically designated structures or homes in any one of San Antonio’s 27 historic districts must first receive approval from HDRC.
City staff recommended approval of Villarreal’s project, as it does conform to the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation and the City’s Historic Design Guidelines – both of which are used as guides for the commissioners as they consider cases. There are no clear-cut rules for every circumstance.
“This should be a cut and dry decision for the commission because they (should) follow the guidelines … (rather than) apply their own architectural or aesthetic preferences,” he said. “Folks who have an old perspective look at solar panels and think that they’re ugly … I look at solar panels and see a symbol of environmental conservation, education, and energy efficiency. I look at solar panels and I see something beautiful.”
The whole point of HDRC is to bring commission members’ perspectives in to make these decisions on a case-by-case basis, explained Commission Chair Michael Guarino Wednesday morning before the vote. “The reason we have a commission is that every case is exceptional and different an there has to be room for interpretation” to keep up with changing dynamics of neighborhoods and economies.
It’s somewhat common for the commission to disagree with staff recommendations, as staff is supposed to follow the “chapter and verse” of design standards and overlays, Guarino said.
Can historic homes host solar panels? If the roof is stable enough and the angle is right, of course they can.
“We’ve approved scores of solar panels in historic districts,” said Guarino, who is a principal at local architecture firm Ford, Powell, and Carson. Those approved panels were usually less visible from public streets, obstructed by trees or other buildings in some way.
Bill Sibley, for instance, was one of the first neighbors in the River Road Historic District to receive approval from HDRC for solar panels in 2013 and his panels were visible from the front of the house – a seemingly disqualifying offense. It was no simple feat getting approval.
Sibley spoke in support of Villarreal’s proposal on Wednesday, citing his own project as precedent.
“The horse is out of the barn on this,” he said.
But Sibley was able to demonstrate that the angle of the roof and and large trees obstructed the view of the panels, Guarino said. Villarreal’s project makes no attempt to hide the panels from plain view.
Limiting solar installation in the 27 historic districts, which account for less than 60 square miles of San Antonio’s more than 500 square miles, Guarino added, “is pretty minuscule compared to the kind of (solar) shed that’s available throughout the whole city.”
Its options like these that could make renewable energy more accessible to those who don’t have the upfront capital or roof space to do install their own.
Renewable energy is not a “fashion statement,” Guarino said. “It’s nice to show your neighbors that you’re environmentally conscious, but there are other ways to do it.”
Municipalities across the nation are still trying to find a balance between preservation and alternative energy production for historic homes. San Antonio’s abundant supply of historic properties and sunshine in addition to the public utility’s aggressive push to infuse decentralized solar power into its power grid, the city has a particularly urgent need to come up with a clear plan to manage these resources.
Villarreal questions if HDRC should have the jurisdiction to limit private electricity production.
“Allowing solar panels is actually pro-historic conservation,” Villarreal said. “Every dollar I save on my energy bill is going to go toward future restoration of this historic house. To redline older neighborhoods from accessing the CPS Energy subsidy would discourage residence of historic neighborhoods like Manhke Park rom ever considering historic designation.”
“They’re making it so complicated that the ‘Average Joe’ isn’t going to go through this,” he said. Wednesday was the third time his proposal was considered by the commission. HDRC meetings, which are often lengthy, take place almost every week on Wednesday afternoons.
The work is worth it, Guarino said, and the commission tries to avoid lengthy design and discussion processes whenever possible.
“The character of the neighborhood is strongly defined by architecture and the landscape that goes with it,” Guarino said, speaking to the importance of maintaining the integrity of an historic district beyond mere aesthetics. “An individual house contributes, but the overall form is what makes it a district.”
*Top image: Mike Villarreal, former 15-year member of the Texas House of Representatives, owns a home in the Historic King Williams District. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.