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Charlottesville church denied solar panels to appeal to City Council

The church in downtown Charlottesville that had its request to install solar panels denied by the city’s Board of Architectural Review last month will appeal the decision to City Council.

"It’s a pain," Rev. Alex Joyner of First United Methodist Church told The Daily Progress on Friday. "But the benefit of it could be that it helps both the BAR and the city council see how their current policies could be updated."

It was an ironic twist, critics have argued, that the board’s Jan. 18 vote to deny the solar panels came just a day after City Council officially amended its Comprehensive Plan with a Climate Action Plan.

"We feel the BAR’s vote was based on out-of-date Architectural Design Control Districts Guidelines that are now in conflict and incongruous with the current vision and goals of the City of Charlottesville to promote the use of sustainable energy," the church’s architect wrote in its appeal.

The city’s Climate Action Plan provides strategies to reduce greenhouse gas by 45% by 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.

The church said its goals are aligned with that environmentally conscious plan – not to mention a plan to see the church’s annual electric bill reduced by $11,000.

"It’s borne, for us, out of a desire to have a project that expresses the values of care for God’s creation," Joyner said.

Congress passed legislation last year that lets nonprofit groups such as churches reap the 30% solar tax credits previously available to homeowners.

A member of the congregation at First United Methodist Church offered to pay for the panels. Joyner said the project was enthusiastically supported by the church’s Creation Justice team, which advocates for “important environmental justice issues,” according to the church.

But in a 4-3 vote, a majority of the Board of Architectural Review decided that the proposal was inconsistent with the historic standards it’s charged with upholding.

The vote stoked outrage.

Ryan Lanford, a columnist at the Cavalier Daily student newspaper at the University of Virginia, called the vote a step back for green energy that must be rectified.

“The decision to deny First United Methodist Church their solar panels is a mistake that highlights shortcomings in the city’s regulatory guidelines,” Lanford wrote in a Feb. 4 opinion piece.

"Egregious," Charlottesville Planning Commissioner Rory Stolzenberg wrote in a Jan. 19 tweet.

Stolzenberg blasted the four board members who voted against the project as "votes for coal" and went on to publicly deride one member, Reason Magazine science reporter Ronald Bailey, as "a bona fide climate denier." Bailey edited a book in 2002 titled "Global Warming and Other Eco Myths.”

"Climate denier?! Absurd," Bailey responded in an email to The Daily Progress. "I publicly changed my mind on the topic back in 2005 in a column titled ‘We are all Global Warmers Now.’”

Bailey noted that he went on to extol some benefits of solar energy in a 2020 Reason story entitled "Is ‘King Solar’ Now the Cheapest Electricity Source Ever?" The article’s subtitle: "Yes, and it’s only going to get cheaper."

Making solar cheaper was a key goal of a 2020 state law called the Virginia Clean Economy Act, which removed some barriers to adding solar arrays to buildings. However, the Charlottesville Board of Architectural Review has a mandate to maintain barriers against undue changes to historic forms and materials, according to the majority of members voting against the church’s project.

At issue in that vote was that the church’s panel installation would involve removing roughly 4,000 square feet of vintage slate roof from atop the 1925-vintage sanctuary on East Jefferson Street and replacing the area beneath the planned solar panels with asphalt shingles.

Project architect William L. Owens told the board that the asphalt shingles would be invisible and that the panels would be visible only from a significant distance.

"Our guidelines say you don’t remove roof and you don’t obscure or harm slate," Board Member Cheri Lewis said at the January meeting where the proposal was denied.

"I don’t see how it is detrimental to the historic district," countered Board Member Breck Gastinger, part of the minority that supported the church’s plan.

Board Member Carl Schwarz said at the meeting that he was not bothered by the solar panels but by the slate removal – even though the church offered to save the removed tiles.

"My struggle is with taking a historic material that has embodied energy in it, that has a good long lifetime left in it, removing it and replacing it with a petroleum product," said Schwarz, siding with the majority against the project.

Melanie Miller, a former board member, claims the whole dilemma is spurious; she says solar arrays can be installed atop slate.

"In my 9 years as chair of the BAR," she said in an email to The Daily Progress, "I often found that contractors, not property owners, are often interested in what is easiest, not what is best, for a property.”

Miller said the church should have developed a plan that preserves the slate roof instead of replacing part of it with asphalt.

"Not only does that choice detract from the historical value of the church, it is also bad for the environment," Miller wrote.

Owens told The Daily Progress that he did pursue a solar-over-slate option with the board. Meeting minutes show that he made such proposal in October but backed away from demanding a vote.

"They got all wrapped around the fact that we were going to create a leaky roof for the church," said Owens. "You could see the vote going south. They just didn’t want us touching the slate."

Owens said he can understand such concern due to the inherent brittleness of the slate, which may already be nearly 100 years old. He said that’s why he went back to the drawing board.

"I can Google with the best of them, but I haven’t found any magic solution," said Owens. "If we could make [solar panels] magically hover above the roof, they’d agree with it."

Lewis took umbrage with the public criticism the board is now facing.

"We shouldn’t be vilified for doing our job," Lewis told The Daily Progress. "The only thing we’re supposed to judge an application by are the guidelines."

"We didn’t make the guidelines," Lewis said. "If the city council wants to update the guidelines, that would be great."

That’s what the chair of the Virginia Clean Energy Advisory Board wants.

"Solar projects routinely confront out-of-date local code restrictions, which derail projects and hinder opportunities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and save money," wrote Susan Kruse in a Jan. 31 opinion piece published in The Daily Progress.

"Charlottesville should lead the way by updating its codes and removing needless and outdated barriers to rooftop solar and other net-zero-enabling technologies," said Kruse, who also directs the Community Climate Collaborative. "The climate can’t wait, and places like First United Methodist shouldn’t have to either."

Owens said that he does not expect the church’s appeal to appear on a City Council agenda until March at the earliest.


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