Nothing new under the sun: Visible solar panels in historic district divides Cobble Hill board

Nothing new under the sun: Visible solar panels in historic district divides Cobble Hill board
Photo by Jason Speakman

Can historic brownstones go green?

The city must come up with clear guidelines on how to stick solar panels on protected buildings, say members of a Cobble Hill area community board, after a debate over whether to approve the addition of sun-powered screens to a row house in the neighborhood’s historic district created a schism in the panel on Wednesday.

Community Board 6 ultimately voted 28–2 to okay a Warren Street homeowner’s bid to top his property with panels, despite its landmarks committee rejecting the idea 7–6 earlier in the month, but members say the conflict really shines a light on the need for rules about what is and isn’t okay as more Brooklynites try to balance environmental and historic preservation.

“It really is the issue of our times,” said Park Sloper and board member Joanna Smith. “What do we need to do to ensure our future in terms of what’s happening to our climate, while addressing preservation — which is very much about preserving the character of the neighborhood, but also property values and aesthetics.”

It is relatively easy for historic homeowners to secure a permit to install solar panels if they are completely out of sight. But in this case, the owner of the property between Henry and Clinton streets can’t lay his panels flat, because the city requires enough space for firefighters to traverse the roof, and his is already filled with mechanics and sky lights.

His contractor Brooklyn Solar Works says this is a common problem in borough brownstones, so it has come up with a stilted contraption to raise the ray-absorbing devices nine feet off the roof — the minimum clearance required for New York’s Bravest to swing an axe — but this would make it visible from parts of the street.

This was the first time the issue of installing solar panels on a landmarked building had come before Community Board 6 — district manager Craig Hammerman described it as a “test case” — and the committee’s chairman said he wasn’t confident that the stilt solution was the best or only one.

“I don’t know if there were other feasible ways to do it, and I wasn’t ready to say ‘okay’ because these guys were saying this was the only way to do it,” said Bob Levine.

The full board ultimately agreed it wasn’t too obtrusive in this case and supporting clean energy was a priority — but also to ask the Landmarks Preservation Commission to provide it with guidelines to make more informed decisions in the future.

“I think there was an understanding in the room that this was something that needed to proceed, and that we need to work with landmarks in the future,” said Smith.

The commission will decide on the fate of the Warren Street solar panels at a meeting on Feb. 2.

But Hammerman expects Wednesday’s debate will be the first of many — the board’s district also covers historic districts in Carroll Gardens and Park Slope.

Reach reporter Colin Mixson at cmixson@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260-4505.