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Charlottesville City Council overturns BAR vote, OKs solar panels for Methodist church

Charlottesville City Council overruled its Board of Architectural Review on Monday night, voting to allow First United Methodist Church to remove a swath of its slate roof to install a solar array that will save the congregation about $11,000 per year.

The vote, and the debate preceding it, may have a greater impact than simply allowing a church to install solar panels, however, after several speakers at City Hall – including some council members – questioned the decision-making and the guiding principles of the city’s architectural review board which originally voted the proposal down.

The Monday night City Council vote was 4-0, with one councilor, newcomer Leah Puryear, absent.

“I was pleased,” Susan Kruse, the executive director of the Community Climate Collaborative told The Daily Progress. “Our city needs to get with modern times and remove some of these barriers to implementing renewable energy solutions.”Kruse was among several people who urged the council to overturn the

Jan. 18

BAR vote denying the downtown church’s solar panel proposal. At least two councilors publicly accused the board of relying on outdated guidelines – particularly after the church architect alleged that the BAR seemed unnecessarily worried about roof leaks.

“That’s our problem, not yours,” architect William L. Owens said during Monday’s debate in the council’s chambers in City Hall.

City Council Member Michael Payne said the board’s recent decision-making has done considerable harm to its reputation.

“I think this whole saga has probably done more to hurt the cause of historic preservation than anything in recent memory because it has now created an impression among a lot of people in the community that this is a body oblivious to the big picture and is throwing up barriers to renewable energy,” said Payne. “I think it’s going to take a long time to repair that reputational damage.”

However, preservation planner Jeff Werner, who serves as the BAR’s staffer, bristled at the accusation.

“It’s a lot of myth out there,” said Werner. “I really do want to push back.”

Werner showed the council a tally of the previous 15 solar proposals that came before the BAR. All 15 were approved. Werner said the difference in this instance was the roof’s slate, a durable stone original to the 1923 structure.

“The BAR operates within a box,” said Werner, noting the group’s narrow purview which includes preserving historic materials.

Another person urging appreciation for the BAR’s ruling was BAR Chair Breck Gastinger. Even though he voted to approve the slate removal, Gastinger said that “misleading statements” by some who disagreed with the BAR’s decision concerned him.

“Slate is a remarkable local material that lasts 100 to 150 years,” said Gastinger, calling the plan to replace the slate underneath the planned solar panels as short-lived and likely coming from overseas.

“It is not sustainable to remove a slate roof which is in good shape in favor of technology which the applicant admitted will be obsolete in 20 years and will require replacement,” Gastinger said.

Payne pushed back on that assertion.

“Did you do any analysis?” asked Payne. “I think it’s a claim that needs to be substantiated if it’s going to be the basis for a decision.”

Earlier in the meeting, Charlottesville Planning Commissioner Rory Stolzenberg spoke in favor of the solar proposal by using the BAR’s own words against it.

“The current BAR guidelines are clear, and I quote, ‘Nothing in these guidelines should be construed to discourage green building or sustainable design,’” said Stolzenberg.

“Preservation goals cannot exist in a vacuum,” said church congregation member Fred Schneider, urging the council to use its “wider mandate” to approve the solar project.

Shortly before seconding Payne’s motion to overturn the BAR, Council Member Brian Pinkston rejected Payne’s notion that the BAR had harmed its reputation.

“It seems to me the BAR followed the process,” said Pinkston. “I feel like the process worked.”


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