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Historic Cape Cod vs Solar Panels

Last Updated February 14, 2024

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Michael Jones

By Michael Jones

Michael literally wrote the book on solar (it’s called The Homeowners’ Guide to Going Solar) and has been a solar consultant for over four years.

Historic Cape Cod wrestles with solar panel approvals

Here’s a vexing question for Cape Cod solar proponents: Is a vacation resort that prohibits renewable energy projects so as to protect the flow tourist dollars really all that different from a giant oil company that lobbies against renewables because it wants to keep its petrodollars gushing.

That’s the question many historic Cape Cod homeowners are asking as hundreds of permits for rooftop solar are being denied by one of the largest, most powerful historical societies in the nation.

The Old Kings Highway Historic District was established in 1973 and covers an area of about 80 square miles, including the homes of around 45,000 Cape Codders. Rooftop solar projects on any of the homes within that area don’t just need to get the usual building and electrical permits from their local towns, they also need a separate green light from their town’s historical committee.

Many are either being denied or substantially curtailed because they are deemed “historically inappropriate” by these committees.

Historic Cape Cod vs Climate Concerns

It’s a tricky conundrum because Cape Cod is on the front line of climate change. Rising sea levels and more frequent Atlantic storms will arguably affect Cape Cod’s beautiful but fragile landscape more than just about any other part of the country. 

And that beautiful landscape is partly why millions of tourists come here to visit year after year. 

But another reason tourists visit is to experience the historic towns along the Old Kings Highway. And those towns, from Sandwich to Orleans, have established building codes that are designed to maintain the historic splendor of their buildings. 

And these codes don’t just apply to old buildings. Any building that is situated north of Route 6 is subject to these restrictions, meaning that thousands of homes that are less than 30 years old can be denied permits for solar projects because of rules that are designed to protect the historic integrity of quaint bed and breakfasts and the historic houses of 18th century sea captains.

Inconsistent Rulings

And the whole situation isn’t helped by the fact that these decisions are made at the town level rather than by an all-encompassing Historic District. So Sandwich and Yarmouth, for example may be following the same rules laid down by the Historic District, but each town’s Historic Committee may interpret those rules slightly differently.

For, example, Charles from East Sandwich was a customer of mine, who lived in a twenty-year-old house just off Exit 4 of the Mid-Cape Highway (I’m old school, it’s still Exit 4 to me). Crucially, though, it was to the north of the highway, which is the southernmost border of the Historic District. 

Even though his home was several miles from anywhere you might describe as historic Cape Cod, he was prohibited from placing panels anywhere on the street-facing side of the roof.  So a system that could have easily covered 100% of his home’s electricity needs was restricted to covering just 65%.

Another homeowner in Yarmouth was similarly denied permission to put panels on the front of his house, even though his neighbor just two doors down, was allowed to install on the front of his home. Why the inconsistency? He was told that his neighbor’s house was set back slightly further from the street and had trees in the front yard that hid the panels from view.

Historic Cape Cod scene includes many modern features, but not solar panels

And it’s not as if these historic districts are banning modernity entirely, which makes some wonder if solar panels are being unfairly singled out. TV antennae back in the day, and satellite dishes more recently haven’t been banished in the same way, to say nothing of cars, traffic lights, motorized lawn mowers and high-tech security cameras.

Slight Easing of Restrictions

In fairness, the Historic DIstrict has made some concessions to solar in recent years, allowing some homeowners to install all-black panels on all-black roofs on single-family homes that are less than 75 years old.  

But the exemption criteria are still quite onerous, placing restrictions on everything from the height of the roof, the length of the ridgeline, the thickness of the panels and the locations from where they can be seen.

But the exemption does show that the parties involved are at least trying to balance the needs of the planet with the needs of the tourist industry. 

And further easing of restrictions could be on the way since local state senator Julian Cyr has proposed Bill S.1289 – An Act Relative to Installing Solar Energy Systems in Historic Districts.  If the legislation passes, it could redefine solar panels as public necessities, in much the same way as utility poles and wires are currently defined. 

That would mean historic committees like the Old Kings Highway Historic District would have far less power to deny solar installations, and Cape Cod homeowners would have more freedom to do their part to fight climate change.

If you’d like help figuring out if your home is allowed to go solar, you can schedule an informative, no-pressure chat with either of the Cape Cod Solar Guys.

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