Eliot Solar Diary II: Permit denied

Northeast Conservation Districts shutout from Solar tax incentives

by Shara Alexander

You may have seen the call to join Solarize Northeast in the Winter and Spring 2010 issues of the Eliot news. The Solarize program was designed to bring down the price of home solar systems by enrolling as many homeowners as possible at one time to purchase panels – a bulk-buying strategy.

Solarize Northeast followed on the heels of a very successful Solarize Southeast program that enrolled hundreds of Southeast Portland residents and brought the price per KwH down for everyone enrolled. The program expanded to Northeast Portland in Winter 2009 and was headed by volunteers with the Northeast Coalition of Neighborhoods. It will be expanding again to North Portland starting in January.

Conservation Districts

Unfortunately, what is not mentioned in the promotional materials sent out by Solarize Northeast, the solar installation companies, or by the City of Portland Solar Now! campaign, is that residents of five Conservation districts (see map) in inner Northeast Portland — Eliot, Mississippi, Kenton, Piedmont and Woodlawn — are generally not allowed to have solar panels. These five districts are required to comply with a section of the zoning codes called Community Design Standards. These codes do not apply to any other Portland neighborhoods. All of the Conservation districts are in Inner Northeast Portland.

In Eliot and the four other NE Portland Conservation Districts located along I-5, street-facing solar panels are not specifically restricted by the zoning code. However, applicants in these districts are required to pay a $1,300 fee to have their plans examined by a Historic Design Review panel. At that time they are told street-facing installations are not approvable. Rear-facing panels are the only installations exempt from the design review.

A $1,300 fee adds enough cost to a solar system to push the payback time many years, putting it further out of reach for Northeast residents. Of the limited number of applicants that have successfully achieved Historic Design Review approval, they have been required to reduce system sizes and install more expensive panels, which further increases homeowner costs.  But satellite dishes and utility meters are not regulated, and rooftop mechanical equipment is specifically identified as exempt.

An aerial survey shows that historic requirements in Northeast Conservation districts effectively excludes over 3,000 homes in inner Northeast from participating in incentive programs – state tax rebates and federal tax credits amounting to thousands of dollars. In addition, the exclusion of potential participants raises the cost of going solar for everyone else in Northeast Portland because of the loss of community bulk-buying power that would come with those additional purchases.

What is particularly frustrating is that the City of Portland is on one hand taking money from the Federal government to improve access to solar panels, but has effectively taken steps to make it more difficult for inner North-Northeast residents.

In late 2009, Portland received a 2-year grant of $400,000 from the U.S. Department of Energy to “address specific barriers to solar adoption in urban settings and support innovative approaches….to increase the number of residents that use solar energy to power their homes.” (Bureau of Development Services-PortlandOnline.com) There are numerous examples in Conservation Districts of highly visible solar panel installations that were permitted by the City of Portland without Historic Design Review.  However, since the Solarize Northeast program came online, the City is now enforcing the requirement for Historic Design Review of solar panels.

In April 2010, the city council adopted a new version of the Regulatory Improvement Code Amendment Package (RICAP 5). The standards apply to all structures in the districts, whether 100 years old or recently built.

Homeowners may not even know they are in a Conservation district until they are well into a project. Just recently the mayor’s office revised the Portland Online web pages to try to explain the confusing policy on solar in Conservation districts, but before that you had to dig well into the code to get any information on solar panel standards in Conservation districts. Solar City, the company we worked with, spent many (now unreimbursed) hours measuring and drawing up our system, and didn’t realize our permit would be rejected.

When we enrolled in Solarize Northeast in Winter 2009, the city was in the final stages of revising the zoning code. The Historic Landmarks Commission was heavily involved in this process, yet the public outreach to Conservation Districts was minimal.  The code was revised to make solar installation easier in all areas except Conservation districts. Unfortunately the criteria are not transparent. The granting of permits is at the discretion of the Historic Landmarks Commission, a citizen panel within the Bureau of Development Services.

Solar installations in nearby neighborhoods have minimal code restrictions.  Adjacent N-NE areas such as Boise, Alameda, Arbor Lodge, Overlook, Sabin, Concordia, do not have the restrictions that Eliot, Mississippi, Kenton, Piedmont and Woodlawn have. Only one NE neighborhood (Irvington) has pursued Historic status, yet five neighborhoods were simultaneously declared Historic Conservation Districts by the city 20 years ago. The intention may have been benign, but the effect is an added burden on the Northeast homeowner – Conservation status brings no tax relief or other financial benefits, but makes upgrades, energy independence and building in our neighborhoods more expensive and time consuming. We are not allowed to take advantage of the government-sponsored incentive programs that the rest of the city has access to.

If you are surprised to hear that our neighborhood is this restrictive on solar and you want the city to pursue an exemption from design review for solar panels, please cut out this article, sign it, and mail it to your city council members. You can also call them or email them. Tell them you want to restart RICAP 5 and have a more public process and time to educate ourselves about what’s at stake for Eliot.