CM Solar
Linda Steenrod walks along in front of her home on Washington Street in Cape May. Steenrod had solar panels installed last year at the rear of the home, barely visible from Washington Street. Dale Gerhard

CAPE MAY — An era powered by wood and coal is running directly into one that relies on a stiff wind and the sun’s rays to provide energy.

At issue is whether alternative energy systems such as solar panels and wind turbines can be placed on homes built during the Victorian era. The largest collection of vintage and restored Victorian homes in the nation has made the resort a National Historic Landmark, which draws tourists.

“This is our way of making money. These historic buildings are our economy,” said Mary Ann Gaffney, who heads the Cape May Historic Preservation Commission.

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The HPC recently asked City Council to amend the design standards that govern the town’s historic homes. The standards have been in place since 2003, when alternative energy systems were not a big issue.

The HPC doesn’t want windmills anywhere — and only wants solar systems that can’t be seen from the street. The commission is also asking council to toughen standards, calling for replacement of wooden windows and roofs with original materials, or “same for same,” instead of using modern building products. Some of the changes the HPC wants involves changing a few words to strengthen the law, such as replacing “should” to “shall.”

The HPC is not the only group with an agenda in town.

The Cape May Environmental Commission, chaired by Charlotte Todd, is asking council to adopt ordinances making it easier to use alternative energy systems.

“I would hope you, as a council, could pen something that is very open to help residents reduce energy costs. They’re only going to climb. They’re not going to go the other way,” Todd said.

With solar, Todd points to state legislation that instructs municipalities not to restrict such projects.

‘Gingerbread police’

Chris Zelov, of Bucks County, Pa., tried to install a solar system on his Jefferson Street home in 1996. He was denied by the HPC, or as he calls them, “the gingerbread police.” It’s one of the reasons he left town, recalling constant battling with the commission for two years.

“It’s all the B&B (bed and breakfast) people running that town ... anything to do with progress, they have an issue with. They want to freeze-frame reality, and it just doesn’t work,” Zelov said.

The HPC changed its stance in recent years, approving four solar projects that started in 2009 with the 1888 Carol Villa Hotel owned by Mark Kulkowitz. The key for approvals were that the panels could not be seen from the street.

Linda and Robert Steenrod won approval for panels at the 1852 Enoch Hand House they live in on Washington Street, but could not get approval for the panels on their bed and breakfast they operate next door, the Billmae Cottage. The difference was street-level visibility from the two roofs.

“I think they’re being too restrictive,” said Robert Steenrod. “The HPC has to use common sense. It shouldn’t be so restrictive that it’s not possible to engage and save the planet.”

The commission wants solar on historic buildings only if it is “not visible from a public right of way such as a nearby street, sidewalk or other public place.”

Watch list

Commission Attorney Robert Fineberg is reminding the public the city’s landmark designation was in question a few years ago, after the historic Christian Admiral Hotel was demolished. The town was taken off a “watch list” of landmarks in danger, but Fineberg said its standing is still tenuous. He said it must answer to other authorities, including the U.S. Department of Interior, which has its own design standards. The commission said its suggestions are consistent with those standards.

“There’s a tug of war. It’s easy to lose that designation if development is permitted that negatively impacts the Historic District,” Fineberg said.

The commission wrote a letter to City Council this week, reminding council members the HPC mission is to maintain the town’s architectural heritage and preserve the town’s National Historic Landmark status.

“That designation from the federal government is vital to our ability to obtain grants, loans and attract large numbers of historic enthusiasts that enhance our tourism trade,” the letter stated.

There is no give on wind turbines. The commission said turbines would be visible from the street and obstruct views. Todd is stressing that wind and other alternative energy systems are changing.

“They’re becoming smaller, more efficient and less intrusive. Be open in your judgment of this technology,” Todd said.

City Attorney Tony Monzo said the stricter standard the commission wants for wood windows and roofs would “make it an inflexible rule” and more difficult to overturn in court. These standards are constantly being challenged.

Fineberg said modern replacements may look like the real thing, but they are not, so the historic status is hurt.

“There is a great distinction between historic preservation and replication,” Fineberg said.

Todd argues the city is already full of non-historic items — including cell towers, cars, trolleys and satellite dishes.

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I see such beauty in seeing energy-saving systems,” Todd said.

Council decided to get more information from the HPC and track the impact of the state legislation regarding solar panels before making any decisions.

Contact Richard Degener:


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