*Pre-requisite for SolSmart designation
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The zoning ordinance creates statutory limits on what individuals may do with their property as a matter of right and often provides additional processes to consider special exceptions. By removing barriers to solar within the zoning ordinance, including the examples listed in the bullet above, a local government can reduce the cost of solar adoption. In many instances, removing restrictions zoning prohibiting PV development can save property owners time and money because they could avoid going through a more extensive special exception process to have their solar system considered. Examples include: height restrictions, set-back requirements, allowing solar “by-right” in residential and commercial zones without requiring a conditional use permit.
Resources and Examples:
*Pre-requisite for SolSmart Silver and Gold designation
*Pre-requisite for SolSmart Silver and Gold designation. 20 points.
The zoning ordinance creates statutory limits on what individuals may do with their property as a matter of right and often provides additional processes to consider special exceptions. While a zoning ordinance change that that codifies solar by-right is a best-case scenario, sometimes this may be impractical or politically difficult to achieve in the short term, or outside of zoning update cycle. Instead of an ordinance change, municipalities may write and publish a zoning determination letter clarifying that the use of solar PV is allowed by-right in all major zones. Allowing solar by-right and as an accessory use in all major zoning categories can increase solar adoption and lower costs for residents and local governments.
Resources and Examples:
The zoning ordinance stipulates how and what a property owner may do with his/her property as a matter of right. Ordinances frequently provide for special exception procedures to consider proposals that are inconsistent with current zoning, which can be long and costly processes. Allowing solar by-right and as an accessory use in all major zoning categories will allow property owners to install solar PV systems as a matter of right as stipulated in the zoning, which can increase solar adoption and lower costs for residents and local governments.
Planning documents provide the foundation for a community’s vision for how and where it would like future development to occur. Comprehensive, sub-area, and functional plans also provide policy guidance to the local government as it weighs how future government aligns with other planning objectives. Identifying ways to integrate solar PV into these documents (e.g. comprehensive plan, energy plan, and climate plan) is critical step to increasing local adoption.
Historic districts are generally created as overlay districts on top of the existing zoning category. Typically, the act of creating these districts is accompanied by the development of specific design guidelines that outline how a property owner may modify a structure while maintaining the historical nature of the structure and surrounding neighborhood. Frequently design guidelines can hinder or prevent the installation of solar systems in historic districts.
The comprehensive plan is a community’s foundational document which guides future local development and is often composed of subsections, such as transportation, housing, and land use. Many states require localities to develop and maintain a comprehensive plan under state law. Localities can also develop functional plans, or stand-alone plans, that address other policy areas. Localities may adopt functional plans addressing energy or climate change which could set goals and/or objectives, and could include specific references to renewable energy such as solar. Since development is governed largely by the components of the comprehensive plan and guided by the policies outlined in other functional plans, it is important for communities to integrate solar specifically in these documents.
The orientation and design of a structure can have a large impact on its ability to take advantage of active or passive solar. Communities can encourage the implementation of solar-ready designs in new construction by providing developers with solar-ready construction guidelines.
Creating development incentives, such as allowing for increased height or density beyond what is permitted by the underlying zoning, for site with installed solar can provide local developers with an additional motivation to spur solar adoption locally. This can be a particularly useful strategy for communities with high percentages of residents living in multi-family buildings.
Many communities have underutilized or undeveloped lots, along with contaminated sites, which could be ideal locations for solar development. Communities can create incentives to encourage development by streamlining processes, reducing costs, or providing financial support for development projects on these underutilized sites.
Training staff in planning and zoning best practices for solar can enable them to evaluate the options available for reducing barriers to solar and enable them to customize these best practices to their local context. It is important that policies are transparent, clear, and explicit in order to provide certainty for solar developers and installers.
Resources and examples:
Unless specifically permitted in the zoning code, accessory uses are not allowed within a zone, and this can pose a barrier to installing small ground-mounted systems. Specifically allowing ground-mounted PV as an accessory use in at least one zoning district enables property owners whose roofs are not suitable for solar to still benefit from solar power by installing small ground-mounted systems on their property (e.g. in cases where roofs are in need of being replaced relatively soon, have structural limitations, are shaded, or do not have suitable orientation or layout for solar). Therefore, a pathway for ground-mounted small-scale systems can be helpful.
Height restrictions are often imposed on buildings within specific zoning districts in order to satisfy a number of planning objectives such as protection of views, controlling neighborhood character, density, and development patterns, and sometimes even access to sunlight. In many districts buildings are built up to the maximum allowed height. Many cities exempt certain rooftop equipment from height limits such as antennas, chimneys, flagpoles, and more. Since solar arrays can extend above the height of the roof, particularly for flat-rooved buildings, adding solar to the list of exemptions can provide certainty for property owners.
Since ground-mounted solar is often considered an accessory use, the restrictions that jurisdictions apply on accessory uses would apply to solar. Explicitly exempting ground-mounted solar PV from some of these restrictions can remove potential barriers. Restrictions such as lot coverage, lot setbacks, aesthetic screening requirements, and impervious surface ratios are normally intended to apply to structures such as sheds, accessory dwelling units, and more substantial structures, which could be construed as having more impact on neighbors when built up against lot lines or when covering a larger percentage of the lot. Generally, ground mounted solar does not contribute as significantly to such potential problems.
The zoning ordinance creates statutory limits on what individuals may do with their property as a matter of right and often provides additional processes to consider special exceptions. However, the code can be unclear and difficult to access especially for specific items like solar PV. Posting an online factsheet facilitates the deployment of solar by clarifying exactly what is allowed on buildings. If such a resource is developed for PZD-11, it is important to have a plan in place to keep it updated if zoning text or practices change, as conflicting information could add confusion rather than clarify.
Municipalities need to determine specific requirements for primary use solar guidelines, including type of district (e.g. industrial buffer land, land unlikely to be developed for other purposes, low productivity agricultural land) and what types of permits are applicable (e.g. conditional use permits, use permits). Streamlining methods include the adoption of clear standards or special use regulations that address environmental concerns and provide a clear set of guidelines for the solar industry to follow as part of a more predictable approval process.
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