Historic District Commission Rejects First Parish, Unitarian Universalist’s Solar Panel Proposal

First Parish, Unitarian Universalist, on Bedford Common - Image (c) all rights reserved
First Parish, Unitarian Universalist, on Bedford Common – Image (c) all rights reserved

By Andrea Cleghorn

At its June 1 meeting, the Historic District Commission (HDC) denied permission to First Parish, Unitarian Universalist, to install solar panels on five roofs of the church on Bedford Common.

Alternate-at-Large HDC member Christopher Weisz read aloud the motion he had brought to the meeting to deny the application, which he said was written by Chairman William Moonan. The vote was 3 – 2 in favor of the motion to deny acceptance. The motion read:

“I move that the Historic District Commission deny the application for First Parish Church, 75 The Great Road, for solar panels, for the following reasons:

  1. The Church is one of the first meeting houses built in Bedford and it is located centrally on the Town’s Common.  Its “wedding cake” style and visage have become iconic symbols of the Town.  As such, its historic and architectural value is of great significance to Bedford.
  2. Under the Town’s enabling legislation, the Commission is charged with the preservation and protection of the distinctive characteristics of buildings and places significant in the history of the Commonwealth and the Town.
  3. The installation of solar panels on the roof would be highly visible and incongruous to the historic aspect of the Church and its architectural characteristics.”

The solar panel installation would have been one step in First Parish’s plan to reduce its carbon footprint, reduce its reliance on fossil fuel, and respond to the urgency of climate change.

After its first solar panel presentation before the HDC, First Parish was invited to the next commission meeting because only three of the five HDC commissioners were present. At the second meeting on May 4, there was a three-hour debate; a straw vote resulted in a 3-2 vote against the application.

June 1 marked the third appearance of the First Parish Energy Conservancy Task Force before the commission. Denial of the application was the HDC’s first official vote on the proposal.

According to HDC Chair William Moonan, First Parish is required to wait a year before seeking approval of any proposal for solar panels.

Historic District Commissioners in attendance on June 1 were Moonan, full member, chair; Alan Long, full member, architect/builder; Lorrie Dunham, and Karen Kalil-Brown, both full members, both residents of the historic district.

Full member Salvatore Canciello was absent. Christopher Weisz, alternate at-large member and Kevin Latady, alternate, architect, were both at the table. Weisz replaced Canciello as the fifth voting member in Canciello’s absence, as he had seniority over Latady on the commission.

Weisz, who said the decision was “pulling him in both directions,” added that he could not vote in favor of the proposal because he had “not seen the same actual panels.”

“This is the most important building in town,” said Chair Moonan. “We don’t all agree on aesthetics. Some of us like wallpaper, some don’t.”

An application to place panels on four of the five roofs on the newer sections of the meeting house could have had favorable outcome, according to First Parish Counsel Rebecca Neale. The roof in contention is the portion of the historic building, now in its 200th year.  It is the largest span, affording the best placement, yielding twice as much power, and significantly cutting the building’s use of natural gas.

About the Proposal

Karl Winkler, chair of the First Parish Energy Conservancy Task Force, offered a detailed presentation including photographs from various vantage points, sketches of the church and the various roofs of the historic meetinghouse, and its building additions over time.  He brought a sample of the shingles and the kind of solar panel that would be used.

Winkler presented voluminous explanatory material, noting that the panels would be installed with a 24-inch setback equidistant from top and bottom of edges of the roof; there would be new black architectural shingles and black solar panels with black trace and black matte finish; there would be critter guards and black ice skirts; conduit would be hidden from view; there would be a 1-inch gap between panels; and the panels would sit no more than 8 inches above the shingles.

In Support of the Proposal During the Hearing

More than 75 people were in the multipurpose room at Town Hall on Wednesday evening. Several spoke, including members and non-members of the church, along with residents and non-residents of the historic district. All who spoke publicly were in favor of permission.

Moonan spoke of “a great deal” of letters, emails and postcards (79 in all) that had been received by the HDC in support of approving the installation, including drawings by residents under the age of 12 who were unable to come to the meeting because it was a school night.

Moonan said the HDC hadreceived letterssupporting the solar panels from the Chamber of Commerce,from the Bedford Interfaith Council Association, and from John Linz, chair of the town’s Historic Preservation Commission (HPC). Apparently there was no formal vote from the HPC, but a poll of commissioners showed “they are in support.”

There were emails, pleas by a neighbor on Fletcher Road, and a statement by Terry Gleason, vice president of the Massachusetts Chapter of the Sierra Club, the oldest and largest environmental group in the country. Gleason said, “About 15 years ago members looked at each other and said, ‘If we don’t have a world to preserve there is no point in preserving open space.”

Aubrey Jaffer, chair of Bedford’s Energy Task Force, spoke of his committee’s recommendation of the approval for the solar panels to offset energy costs, reduce carbon emissions and contribute to the reduction of climate change.

Resident Ben Littauer told of placing solar panels on his own house on Fletcher Road three years ago “in [this] very green town,” preserving the environment for future generations.

Brown Pulliam, mentioning that he and his wife Lois were among the Bedford residents who had voted at Town Meeting in 1964 to establish the Historic District Commission, urged approval. He commented on the urgency of a “crash program” to cut back on fossil fuels to avoid “climate melt as soon as 20 years” from now.

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Bob Fagan
June 5, 2016 12:38 pm

Do the Bedford HDC members voting to deny the solar panels on the First Parish Church live on the same global-climate-changing planet that the rest of us live on? The historic nature of the First Parish Church block and building is already seriously compromised by the incongruousness of the set of electric utility wires that span the Great Road in front of the Green, and by the continuous stream of fossil-fueled vehicles passing on the front, sides, and back of the Church all day long. Solar panels would improve, not degrade the historic authenticity of the building’s use, allowing it utilize more of the energy source that was relied upon by the original members of the Bedford community in those days before fossil fuels dominated the landscape. I’m not a member of the church, but I’d think that for some members in the community, it’s practically a religious imperative to do what can be done to reduce fossil fuel consumption. Do the right thing and reverse your decision.

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