by Louisa May
Marburg, Germany, a peaceful Renaissance city on a hill, has long been a tourist destination. Its medieval attractions, dating back to the 1200’s, include a castle and the Gothic shrine of St. Elizabeth, a sacred treasure of the Elizabeth Church. The Brothers Grimm studied at the University of Marburg, a school founded in 1527, making it the oldest Protestant university in the world. And Rapunzel’s tower is on the other side of the forest- in fact, many of the Grimm fairy tales were collected here. So, why is this picturesque place suddenly a hotbed of environmental ordinance hostility?
Franz Kahle is deputy mayor of Marburg. He knows that many of Marburg’s 80,000 residents were shocked and dismayed by a new law approved by the town council on June 20, 2008. This ordinance is a first for Germany. It requires that 20% of heating systems in new buildings and renovation projects, including roof repairs, be covered by solar energy. The fines for non-compliance are steep. Property owners have until October 1, 2008 to install solar panels or pay a fine of 1000 euros, about 1500 dollars. Many homes here already have solar panels, but the deputy mayor felt that “a dramatic step was necessary in order to make a leap forward.” He has reminded property owners complaining of “green dictatorship” that building codes constantly dictate what property owners can and can’t do. And, he’s made sure that as part of this new ordinance, exceptions will be made for hardship cases and people living in the shadiest areas.
Speaking of shade, Germany is a cloudy country. It seems an unlikely leader in solar-generated electricity. But last year, half of the world’s solar electricity was produced in Germany. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, Germany leads the world in its use of solar panels, consuming 39% of all solar panel sales. (Japan comes in second at 30%, and the United States lags behind at 9%). By the year 2020, Germany hopes renewable energy resources will supply a quarter of its energy needs.
But not everyone in Marburg is convinced that this new regulation is a good idea. Responding to residents’ concerns that the new law may damage the beauty of many of the historic buildings in town, the regional government in Giessen has threatened to overturn the ruling. On the other side of the fence, local Green Party members hail the ordinance as one that makes true progress.
When I first read about this new law and the ensuing roars of protest, I thought immediately of Nantucket Island, thirty miles off the coast of Massachusetts. I love Nantucket. Surprisingly, the Historic District Commission has, by preserving old buildings, contributed to my love for this “faraway land”. Marburg, Germany has several things in common with Nantucket, Massachusetts. They were both once sleepy backwater towns. Today, each local government struggles to provide balance in their crafting of laws, laws designed to recognize the rights of property owners while protecting the original fabric of historic structures. Sustainable energy,too, is a point of contention. (On Cape Cod and Nantucket, think windmills instead of solar panels.) Many of the historic structures in Marburg and Nantucket have been restored and are now governed by strict conservation measures. Every exterior modification project on Nantucket is subject to the approval of the Historic District Commission, whether a property owner has paid five hundred thousand dollars for his house or eighteen million dollars for “Sandhill” on prime beachfront property. Wherever you are, property owners’ personal taste is often at odds with conservation measures crafted by the regulatory body.
The Brothers Grimm couldn’t have imagined the changes in their university town. But as Marburg, Germany gets greener, this will be a story to learn from, with an ending that may be out of the box.
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