Colonial Williamsburg is not going solar anytime soon. Here’s why

The update, which City Council is set to vote on Thursday, will make regulations on solar panels in Colonial Williamsburg 'more formal'

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Gov. Northam's amendment to Sen. Norment's sales tax bill eliminates groceries from being taxed. (Photo courtesy of Colonial Williamsburg.)
Currently, solar panels are not specifically mentioned as an allowed use for the Historic Area in the City Code. (WYDaily/Courtesy Colonial Williamsburg.)

Year-round, Colonial Williamsburg serves up a little slice of American history.

Men and women wearing 18th-century garb mill around Duke of Gloucester Street, smiling and interacting with passersby. The young Thomas Jefferson stands in front of the John Greenhow Store giving a speech to a crowd of enthralled tourists, while horse-drawn carriages clack down the street.

But what if shiny, modern solar panels popped up behind the Governor’s Palace, or on the roof of the shoemaker’s shop?

That won’t happen, especially if City Council approves an amendment to the city’s Design Review Guidelines Thursday. If the new guidelines are approved, solar panels of any shape or size will be prohibited in the Historic Area.

City Council meets at 2 p.m. Thursday, and the matter is scheduled for a public hearing.

“The Historic Area is for buildings constructed in the 18th and 17th century,” said Carolyn Murphy, city director of planning and codes compliance. “At that time frame, solar panels of course weren’t on the buildings.”

Currently, solar panels are not specifically mentioned in the City Code as an allowed use for the Historic Area.

“This update makes it more formal,” Murphy said.

The proposed change was prompted by House Bill 508, requiring localities to amend or add to their regulations on solar power.

Under the required changes, the city will add a definition for “solar energy systems” to its Design Review Guidelines. The text change also makes the criteria to install solar panels more clear for all the city’s districts, Murphy said.

Under the amendment, solar panels will be allowed in the surrounding Architectural Preservation Districts if they are approved by the Architectural Review Board. As-written now, the guidelines allow solar panels to be mounted on the rear slope of roofs and not visible from the street.

Growth

Solar overall is growing in Greater Williamsburg.

A 20-megawatt solar farm was approved earlier this year for a farm field in Norge, while the 23rd-annual National Solar Tour made a stop in Williamsburg in early October.

Virginia is ranked 17th in the nation for solar, with more than 69,000 homes powered by solar energy. Dominion Energy has latched on to solar energy as well, getting involved with several solar farms throughout the state.

What does the solar push mean for Virginia’s plethora of historic sites?

In some areas, like Colonial Williamsburg, it could mean no solar panels at all.

“We’re pretty protective of the historic district,” Murphy said.

Protecting historic sites

As a location on the National Register of Historic Places, Colonial Williamsburg must adhere to certain federal guidelines.

A Colonial Williamsburg spokeswoman directed WYDaily to the City of Williamsburg for any questions on solar panel limitations in the Historic Area. Murphy said the decision to not permit panels in the Historic Area was solely a city decision.

Federally, the National Park Service requires solar panels installed on a historic property to be located where they cannot be seen from the ground.

“Typically what historic districts will do is try to keep them out of line of site,” said Ann Creasy, community outreach coordinator for the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club. “If there is a vantage point from street or somewhere the public would be able to see it.”

If a solar panel “negatively impacts” the historic character of those federal properties, then it does not meet the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation.

Places on the national register are eligible for tax credits, and if they don’t comply, they may not be able to receive those credits.

Creasy said many states have design guidelines that regulate the aesthetics of the buildings, but not specifically solar power.

Anecdotally, Creasy said some people have been successful in placing solar in historic districts.

There have been some success with people pushing back on historic districts and making the case that their panels are not easily seen and are able to have their installation with no problems,” Creasy said.

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