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Burlington Zoning Case Pits Solar Panels Against Slate Roofs


Published April 27, 2011 at 11:07 a.m.

On the heels of the zoning dust-up over a Burlington restaurant's wind turbine comes another case of historic presevation vs. renewable energy. This time, it's solar panels vs. slate roof — and the solar panels won.

Bob Summers and Orly Yadin asked the city for permission to replace a portion of their slate roof at 185 Maple St. with a standing seam metal roof. The couple wants to install 20 rooftop solar panels as part of an addition (pictured). Six of those would go on what is now slate roof. The homeowners say that mounting the panels on a metal roof would be easier and less costly than drilling into affixing them to slate.

By their estimate, the panels would generate 75 percent of the the household's electricity needs and would not be visible from the street.

Burlington City Planning staff approved of the renovation, which consists of additions to the first and second floors, plus a small patio. But they recommended denial of the solar array because the city's zoning regulations bar property owners from removing slate roofs unless they are in a state of failure. And this roof is in good shape.

In a staff report, senior planner Scott Gustin suggested the homeowners could install 14 solar panels — all but the six that would go where the slate roof is.

"The loss of historic roofing slate will impact the essential integrity of the building," Gustin wrote. "When such alteration can be avoided, as is such in this case, avoidance of impact is the recommended option."

But the homeowners' architect, Bob Duncan, says fewer than 20 panels would make the project "unworkable" financially and would lead the homeowners to scrap the idea. Without all 20 panels, it would take too long for the investment to pay for itself, he says.

On Tuesday, the Design Advisory Board overruled planning staff and approved the metal roof. (Pictured at left is the portion of slate roof where six solar panels will go.) The approval means the project can begin in 15 days.

As a condition of approval, the board put on record that it "preferred" the homeowners install the solar panels over a new slate roof (a third option that was presented during an afternoon hearing at City Hall) but that standing seam would be "acceptable." Also, the homeowners must keep the removed slate shingles for future repairs to the rest of the roof.

Duncan said the ruling was a victory for his clients, but said it doesn't settle the slate vs. solar question. Under Vermont's "clothesline law," he notes, towns can't prohibit property owners from installing solar panels, clotheslines or other energy devices. Gustin stressed in his planning report that the city wasn't denying the homeowner the right to install solar panels; it could do so on metal roofs that are part of the addition, just not on the slate. But Duncan argues that "not allowing the roof to be replaced in order to install the panels is tantamount to denying their installation."

Duncan actually supports the city's rules around slate roofs. Calling them "inherently sustainable," he points out that they are aesthetically attractive, made from locally-sourced materials, and, with proper maintenance, can last 100 years. But the solar question poses a precedent conflict that has yet to be resolved — and, Duncan says, seems bound to come up again in the future.