Historic roof hits the deck
Slate tossed to pave way for solar panels
All of the windows on Jane Gaughan’s home in the Milton Landing Condominiums on Wharf Street face the former storehouse for the Walter Baker & Co. chocolate factory on Adams Street.
When she and her husband purchased their home in 2004, the old building with its slate roof and the memories Gaughan had of the factory as a child were just some of the reasons to move in.
But a few weeks ago, the slate roof was removed, and the building’s owner, Extra Space Storage, has applied for a permit to install solar energy panels across the entire roof.
Watching the dark slate shingles crash to the ground prompted Gaughan to ask about what the town can do to protect a historic roof. She has learned that it’s not much.
According to the permits, Extra Space intends to install multiple, flat, dark-colored solar panels that will look similar to those on the Town Hall building and many Milton public schools.
On its website, Extra Space, a nationwide storage company based in Salt Lake City, states that it is attempting to go greener in an effort to provide clean power and benefit both the planet and its own investors. It plans to install 20,000 panels throughout the country by the end of this year.
The former storehouse was one of many buildings constructed in the 1800s as part of the sprawling Baker’s Chocolate complex in the Lower Mills area of Milton and Dorchester.
The company moved its manufacturing operations to Delaware in 1965, and many of the buildings have been converted in recent years into residences or businesses.
Lower Mills was listed as a historic district in the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. But according to Joseph Prondak, director of Milton’s Building Department, and Town Administrator Kevin Mearn, the town doesn’t have the authority to block the solar panels.
Despite the listing on the register, zoning regulations in Massachusetts General Law 40A Section Three exempt the company from any sort of public permitting process and prevent the towns from regulating so-called clean energy projects.
The law states that “no zoning ordinance or bylaw shall prohibit or unreasonably regulate the installation of solar energy systems or the building of structures that facilitate the collection of solar energy, except where necessary to protect the public health, safety, or welfare.’’
Being on the National Register of Historic Places is mostly honorific, and does not support claims against private owners interested in changing original structures.
Noting that the town cannot have any type of zoning bylaw that regulates solar installations, Prondak said his department’s job is to make sure they’re up to state building codes, period.
“We can really just do what the state building code requires - making sure [the roof] stays put in strong winds and won’t contribute negatively to the building,’’ he said. “Also, once we get an application, there’s no requirement to get input from any of the neighbors.’’
Gaughan noticed work being done on the roof a few weeks ago. Three men were balanced atop the building with crowbars loosening the slate and letting it slide down the roof. It was then she knew she had to start asking a few questions.
“They were like Martians who had just landed on the roof from nowhere,’’ Gaughan said. “They were letting the slate just smash to smithereens, I was horrified, simply horrified.’’
For as many historic buildings as there are throughout Milton, the town has limited ability to protect them.
There are no procedures in place that protect historic buildings from change - just from demolition, Prondak said.
The town isn’t clear on what the installation timeline may be, and Extra Space did not return calls for comment. Prondak said it could be about six weeks until the final phase of construction begins.
For now, the slate has been replaced and long metal lines and wires run lengthwise along part of the roof.
“They have not yet been issued a permit because there are a few more structural details that need to be worked out,’’ Prondak said. “However, once that’s done, it will be issued within a week and then should take about six more weeks to complete.’’
Gaughan knows her time to raise the right questions is diminishing, so she’s working to contact as many people about her concerns as she can.
During the past three weeks, she’s talked with everyone from the town administrator to the National Register and the Milton Board of Selectmen.
However, Mearn said, officials may not be able to do much more than lend a sympathetic ear.
“She can make her pitch, but they can’t really do anything other than listen,’’ he said. “It’s private property, so this is no different of a situation than if I had my roof replaced.’’
Natalie Feulner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.