Solar Panels In Historic Cape Cod: Who Decides Where ‘Modern’ Fits?

5:42 minutes

A man stands on the lawn in front of a house with 3 black solar panels on the roof.
John Beach stands in his backyard in Yarmouth, where he can see his newly installed solar panels. Credit: Eve Zuckoff

state of science icon
This article is part of The State of Science, a series featuring science stories from public radio stations across the United States. This story, by Eve Zuckoff, was originally published by CAI.

When Yarmouth resident John Beach steps out into his backyard, he sees two things he’s proud of: a sprawling garden filled with tomatoes, zucchini, and berries, and 12 solar panels installed on his back roof.

“It sort of suggests that at least I’m aware of some things,” said Beach, who lives in the home with his wife.

“Some things…” — meaning climate change and the power of renewable energy to drive down planet-warming emissions.

Beach worked with a solar company that initially proposed panels on the front and back of his house, but the Yarmouth Old Kings Highway Historic District Committee denied a proposal to install any panels that faced the street.

Beach said committee members told him solar panels on the front of his house would be “historically inappropriate,” he recalled. They described it, he said, as “visually inconsistent with the standards of the historic committee.”

But a few streets over, there are solar panels on a side-facing garage, “which is extremely visible from the street,” Beach said. And his neighbors, just two doors down, have solar panels on the front of their house, he argued. The historic committee told him that’s because the house is set back with trees in the yard. That answer, for Beach, was maddening.

“I certainly respect what they’re trying to do. I mean, I live here partly for that reason,” he said, indicating his support of historic preservation. “But I think we need to become more aware of the nexus between historic preservation and the need to safeguard our environment.”

Cape Cod is home to one of the largest historic districts in the country. In the 80 square miles that make up the Old Kings Highway Historic District, the goal of preservationists is to maintain a certain look. So from Sandwich to Orleans, some 45,000 people who live north of Route 6 are required to get approval from local historic committees for solar installations that are visible from a public way. Over the last few decades, many property owners who’ve had their solar plans challenged or denied have described the committees’ decisions as inconsistent, arbitrary, and subjective.

But the committees remain steadfast: tourists and locals alike love seeing historic buildings preserved. And solar panels on the front of a house can read like billboards for modernity.

“When you start messing with the street view of your house, we have a legal right, on behalf of the public, to make a judgment of the appropriateness of it,” said Jim Wilson, administrative counsel for the Old Kings Highway Regional Historic District Committee, which sets standards and hears appeals of rulings by town committees.

The preservationists’ mandate is only to approve solar panels on homes when they present a minimal visual impact on the neighborhood. And that standard is often the source of the argument: what defines a minimum visual impact?

To be sure, the historic committees have made changes to accommodate solar. Now, homeowners who want to install all-black panels on all-black roofs on houses built less than 75 years ago don’t have to plead their case to town historic committees.

“You don’t have to go through a hearing,” Wilson said. “You simply fill out this form, show us that you meet the criteria for an exemption, and that’s all you have to do.”

For solar proponents, that’s a good start.

“This exemption is sort of a game changer,” said Angela Hemmila, a partner at Solar Rising, a solar company based in Mashpee. “It’s just proof that they’re listening, and they’re trying to work with us.”

But, she said, even with the exemption, it’s still more costly and time-consuming to install solar panels in the historic district. That puts Cape Cod customers in a bind.

“Cape Cod has the highest electric rates in the state,” Hemmila said. “The reality of it is that the people that live in these houses are being charged an astronomical amount from the utility, and installing solar is a great way to combat that.”

It’s a reality familiar to Yarmouth resident John Beach. Even though he only has panels on the back of his house, he has seen a 50% drop in his electric bills. And these days, he and his wife frequently check the solar app on their phones to monitor how much energy they’re using.

“If we see a little blip in the chart, I’ll say, ‘Oh, you left the stove on too long,’ or she’ll tell me, ‘Oh, you took too long a shower,’” he said.

Legislation proposed by state Sen. Julian Cyr, a Democrat who represents the Cape, could define solar panels in historic districts as public necessities, just like utility poles and wires. If that bill becomes law, historic committees would have far less power over solar approvals.

And that could allow John Beach to install solar panels also on the front of his house – where he wanted them all along.

Segment Guests

Eve Zuckoff

Eve Zuckoff is an environment reporter at WCAI in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.

Segment Transcript

CHARLES BERGQUIST: This is Science Friday. I’m Charles Bergquist in for Ira Flatow. It’s time to check in on the state of science.


SPEAKER 1: This is KQR–


SPEAKER 3: Saint Louis Public Radio–

SPEAKER 4: Iowa Public Radio News.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Local science stories of national significance. If you’ve ever been to a historic New England town, you know old neighborhoods there tend to have a certain look. You’ll see a lot of detached houses and frame construction probably with wood siding or shingles, a lot of red brick chimneys, and towns and historic districts are really protective of that look. Don’t try to build a shiny modernist building on a historic small town street.

But what happens when the desire to keep that historic look rubs up against the desire for modern amenities like solar panels? Eve Zuckoff is an environment reporter for CAI in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Welcome back to Science Friday, Eve.

EVE ZUCKOFF: Hi. Thanks for having me.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: So you’re out on Cape Cod, which has a historic district of some 80 square miles containing 45,000 or so residents. What’s the rule on solar panels there?

EVE ZUCKOFF: The rule is that they need to create a, quote, minimal visual impact on a neighborhood, which is immediately where it gets complicated because there are half dozen towns that make up the whole historic district and each town makes its own decisions. So a homeowner with their solar contractor might submit a proposal, go to a historic committee hearing, and say is it OK if my solar panels show just a little bit from the front of the house in the front of the street during the winter when the leaves are off the trees. For one town’s historic committee the answer may be yes no problem, but then for another, the answer may be no, which is where residents get really frustrated.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Yeah, so what is the argument that’s coming from these historic committees? How are they basing their refusals?

EVE ZUCKOFF: Well, the arguments range from economic to sentimental. The historic committees say it’s important to understand history, and a great way to do that is to preserve the buildings that were once lived in by merchants and sea captains. And it’s really good for our seasonal economy.

I talked with Jim Wilson who helps run the old King’s highway Regional Historic District Committee, and he said the Cape is full of tourists and second homeowners who come here to see our beaches, yes, but also spend their money in the quaint historic villages.

JIM WILSON: When you start messing with the street view of your house, we have a legal right on behalf of the public to make a judgment of the appropriateness of it whether or not it fits in will be harmonious in the neighborhood.

EVE ZUCKOFF: So that brings up the second half of his argument. The historic committees only regulate the front of a home. If you want solar panels in the back of your roof or a trampoline park in your back yard, go have at it.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: So it’s not against solar as such but the look of the solar.

EVE ZUCKOFF: Exactly. The historic district committees review applications for any change in the exterior of buildings and structures as seen from the front that includes fences and signs, they review applications for new construction or demolition, and I will say the historic committee is another thing they tout to defend themselves here is that they did recently make changes to accommodate solar. Now homeowners who want to install all-black panels on all-black roofs on houses built less than 75 years ago, they don’t have to plead their case to town historic committees anymore. Still, homeowners make the point that if the back of their roof isn’t south facing or if they have a tree issue in the backyard, they really need their solar on the front.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Yeah. And to play devil’s advocate here, these neighborhoods are not completely historically accurate either. Presumably you’ve got telephone poles and streetlights, and you’ve got modern cars parked out front and things like that.

EVE ZUCKOFF: Right. And one step further, it’s not like the whole historic district is all homes from the 17th century like you can drive through a movie set that way. No, no, no. There are homes in this massive district from the 17th, 18th, 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. So homeowners feel like why are we pretending my modern farmhouse is something it’s not.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Do you have a sense of how many people these rules are affecting, how many people would want to do solar but can’t?

EVE ZUCKOFF: Well, again, there are 45,000 residents who live inside the district, and this is in the state of Massachusetts where we have some of the highest electric bills in the country. So solar panels are cheaper in the long term for folks in this area, and they’re also part of Massachusetts’ overall goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reach net zero by 2050. Massachusetts wants to hit 40% renewable electricity by 2030. We’re currently getting about 10%. So a major expansion is needed there, and if it’s going to be more difficult for people on Cape Cod to get solar, there’s an issue there.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Yeah. So is there any kind of solution to this standoff?

EVE ZUCKOFF: Well, there’s this bill, and the overall goal of this bill making its way through the state house is to establish solar within historic districts across the state as a public necessity just like utility poles and wires and other systems that are all across historic districts. But during a recent committee hearing, this bill was seen as too wide ranging, that it could have a negative impact on much smaller historic districts, so it’s somewhere back to the drawing board. The committee said why don’t you tweak the language a little bit and come find us later.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Something to keep an eye on. Eve Zuckoff is an environment reporter for CAI in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Thanks for being with me today.

EVE ZUCKOFF: Thanks so much.

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