Zoning Practice — December 2012

Ask the Author

Here are reader questions answered by Jeffrey Beiswenger, AICP, author of the December 2012 Zoning Practice article "Powering Down Zoning Regulations."

Question from Megan Day, AICP, Juwi Solar, Inc.:

I develop utility-scale solar farms and find that communities that have not considered large scale solar are the most supportive of utility-scale solar through a conditional or special use on ag, rural, commercial, or just about anything but residential zoning.

The trend I see as communities begin to consider solar in their code is that they restrict larger solar facilities to industrial zoning only. Ground-mounted, larger scale solar (>10 acres) is a very low impact, low profile land use and needs none of the amenities that come with industrial land: major transportation and sometimes rail access, water, and sewer. In addition, industrial land tends to be more urban and smaller in scale, ruling out large scale solar due to size and price.

Do you see similar trends? I think it is critical for planners to understand that the future of solar is much more than preventing HOA restrictions on rooftop installations. We need to think big and allow solar in all zoning districts with a SUP or CUP so communities can decide on a case by case basis what works for them. Do you have advice for going about this?

Answer from author Jeffrey Beiswenger, AICP:

I have certainly seen a trend in California for the utility-scale solar projects. In rural areas, counties tend to allow these with a CUP on agricultural and sometime on industrially zoned land. In California we also have state-level incentives to encourage solar farms, and many municipal power companies are required to provide a certain percentage of power from alternative sources. I can't think of any counties off-hand that seek to prohibit solar farms outright — particularly on rural or agricultural properties.

I would argue against consuming commercially zoned property and in some cases industrially zoned property within more urban areas for large scale solar installations. It seems to me that it is relatively easy to intersperse solar panels within parking areas (e.g., carport canopies), on flat rooftops, and even on residential rooftops. Consuming large amounts of urban land for solar panels would create a lot of "dead" inactive space within communities that would be counterproductive to creating vibrant urban centers. This smaller-scale solar is a great way to maximize existing infrastructure and utilize space that is already available.

The one tool that I did not mention in this issue of Zoning Practice is a financing tool called solar improvement districts (SID). An SID is not a zoning tool but rather a financing tool used by communities to boost green energy projects. In some states, municipalities can create special improvement districts to help businesses and homeowners finance solar energy projects through assessments on their property tax bills.

Question from Rose Vanderpool, Rio Grande County, Colorado:

How do these energy efficiency codes mesh with "rural" areas of development? Rio Grande County, Colorado, is very rural, and I find it difficult to find the balance between rural vs. urban. Our last update did not effectively outline the growth path of our rural community. How do we effectively change zoning that meets our needs today, and yet keep the goal for urban development for areas that are unincorporated that will eventually become incorporated?

Answer from author Jeffrey Beiswenger, AICP:

I was raised in a small town in Wyoming; I understand where you are coming from. Your question is fairly broad, but I'll try to answer it from an energy efficiency perspective. A big problem at the small town/rural fringe is the division of land into small parcels without the infrastructure to support it. The easiest technical solution (and most difficult political solution) is to not allow parcels below 20, 40, 80 acres (pick a big number!) unless infrastructure is available. This can be accomplished with a large lot zoning district that specifies a minimum parcel size. Then the property would need to be rezoned, perhaps along with the submittal of a master plan prior to more "urban" development. This is not just an energy efficiency issue, but it does have energy efficiency implications since takes more energy to serve disorganized, small lot rural developments with water, sewer, roadway, and utility infrastructure.

The best time to implement energy efficient strategies is when new subdivisions are planned or development infrastructure goes in. For example, tree preservation, solar orientation of lots, installation of "purple pipe" for recycled water, and the use of a "rural street" cross-section are all techniques we are implementing for a new development in a rural California community I am working in. The developer is choosing to add these to add value to his development, but these strategies have obvious energy efficiency benefits.

The building code is another place where energy efficiency objectives could be implemented in a small town setting. Requiring that new homes, commercial buildings, etc. are pre-wired or pre-plumbed for solar panels and water heaters makes a lot of sense in sunny Colorado. This adds some expense to the builder, but pays off when the equipment is installed by the eventual occupant. Builders may be reluctant to provide this wiring/plumbing up-front unless required.

Consider contacting your local utility to investigate or potential funding for code update activities. Rural areas are notoriously difficult to serve with electricity and other infrastructure in a cost-effective manner, and power companies may be interested in investigating creative solutions.