2017-06-22 / Opinion


There Goes the Neighborhood

Preservation of Newport’s historic neighborhoods has become as integral to the character of the city as the quality of its harbor, mansions, shops and restaurants, which draw thousands of visitors every year. Purchasing a home in one of the city’s historic districts is a decision best made with the full understanding of the obligations and restrictions that are in place in those neighborhoods. Embracing preservation would suggest that one also believes in authenticity and sustainability.

Within the city’s historic districts, the increased focus on renewable energy is beginning to bring these two ideas to a head. Twice within the last six months, applications to install solar roof panels on homes within a historic neighborhood have come before the Newport Historic District Commission.

The advancement of new technologies in the solar industry is evolving quickly. Proponents of solar have more options from what were once the unsightly, large, aluminum-and-glass panels protruding from rooftops. The two applications before the commission at the moment propose using thin black panels, which are less obtrusive to the eye.

It is anybody’s guess about how this issue will be resolved.

Aiming for a lower electric bill while reducing one’s carbon footprint is the primary motivation for those wanting to go solar. The direction of the discussion, as to whether any such installation is “appropriate” to the characteristics of a specific home and the area in general, will be interesting to watch. There is much guidance from federal and state agencies, as well as from other preservation-related groups about guidelines and the appropriateness of solar panels in historic districts. How the commission moves forward with this issue and whether a balance can be found between authenticity and sustainability remains to be seen.

And then there are the windows. One guess as to what direction this debate might take would be based on how the issue of replacement windows is presented. Most people requesting to replace windows list energy efficiency as the main reason. In historic districts, this creates a dialogue over sustainability not being in concert with authenticity. It’s all in the presentation.

In Newport’s historic districts the utilization of aluminum, vinyl or vinyl clad windows is strictly prohibited. Repair and restoration of existing windows is encouraged over replacement. There is a plethora of information on both the repair versus replace sides relative to cost, savings, efficiency and benefits. Replacement is not prohibited, but it is strictly regulated.

Despite the fact the nearly 40 percent of Newporters live under the constraints of historic preservation, chances are that there are a number of residents for whom allowing solar panels and replacement windows is a moot point. Many people probably don’t care. There are even those who might not even realize that such guidelines exist.

If sides are drawn, what it may come down to is what side of the favor line one stands on. Whether one favors the integrity of Newport’s historic past, or the integrity of Newport’s environmental future, or sees the value of both, we hope that the spirit of creative compromise will rule the day.

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