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Even though the Historic District Landmarks Commission approved 97 percent of its 2023 applications for solar panels on buildings in New Orleans’ historic districts, a false but common perception persists that solar panels are not allowed on historic structures. HDLC is now working to remedy that notion by releasing updated guidelines on their use.

This city’s sun-soaked climate makes solar energy an attractive option for many home and business owners. The HDLC’s staff has made climate resiliency a top priority, trying to approve sustainable technology whenever possible. Now, the staff has proposed updates to its design guidelines regarding the use of solar panels on historic buildings, further streamlining the review process while still protecting the quality and character of New Orleans’ neighborhoods.

The HDLC will vote on the new guidelines at its April 3 meeting.

HDLC staff initiated a solar panel study in November, which included researching how comparable historic districts in other U.S. cities approach solar installation, meeting with representatives from the solar industry, and developing proposed guideline revisions with a subcommittee of HDLC commissioners.

The current HDLC Design Guidelines for Solar Panels are based on the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties, which are the nationally accepted specifications for sensitively working on historic buildings. When compared with other city’s historic regulatory commissions, HDLC found that New Orleans is generally as flexible or more flexible than others, including those in Savannah, Charleston, and Boston.

Regulations in historic districts are not the primary deterrent for residents interested in solar energy, according to the HDLC staff members. Rather, it’s the cost of a solar rooftop system that makes some residents shy away from installing the panels. HDLC applications for solar waned after a state tax credit for solar installation ended in 2016, though interest rose again after Hurricane Ida in 2021.

Also, some solar installers are not aware that a permit is necessary before installation of panels on buildings in the city’s full-control historic districts. In recent months, the commission has reviewed a substantial number of solar panel applications “for retention.” These retroactive requests for a permit are made after solar panels have been installed in an unsuitable location or without a Certificate of Appropriateness. Property owners who install panels without a permit could face costly efforts to relocate the panels. By reaching out to industry representatives, the HDLC aims to reduce (or ideally avoid) retention applications in the future.

In New Orleans, the HDLC is charged with protecting and regulating individual landmarks and buildings within historic districts (except for the Vieux Carre). Its authority varies depending on the type of district (full or partial control), but generally the HDLC issues permits for renovations or changes to properties that fall under its jurisdiction. Most applications can be permitted by the HDLC staff on a rolling basis, but depending on the type and complexity of an application, some require review by the full commission. Since the commission meets once a month, it tends to be a slower process than staff review.

The updated guidelines would enable the HDLC staff to increase the number and type of solar arrays it can approve. Previously, on buildings that are deemed “contributing” to a historic district, applications for visually prominent panels had to be reviewed by the full commission. The new guidelines would allow the staff to review applications for solar panels at non-street-facing roof slopes of contributing or non-contributing-rated buildings, whether or not they are visually prominent and provided the panels meet certain criteria. The staff would also be allowed to approve non-contiguous and non-rectangular arrangements on contributing and non-contributing-rated buildings if they are not visually prominent.

Other updates to the guidelines allow conduit (when necessary) on the exterior of a building if painted to match the wall and provide clarity on how to measure the distance for panel placement from the edge of the roof. The commission will still review solar installations on significant-rated buildings, which include those of national importance or major state, regional or local significance.

The design updates, however, do not allow solar panels on the street-facing roofs on the sides of corner properties. After conducting its study, the HDLC staff and subcommittee decided that street-facing placement of panels, particularly on one-story buildings, diminished the overall character of historic districts, and would compromise HDLC’s primary mission.

On March 6, the commission heard the first round of public comments regarding the guideline updates. Additional public comment will be heard at the HDLC meeting on April 3. If approved, the updated guidelines will be sent to the New Orleans City Council for ratification before they go into effect. The proposed changes can be reviewed on the HDLC’s website.

MaryNell Nolan-Wheatley is PRC’s Advocacy Coordinator & Public Policy Research Director.