Planning and zoning for solar energy readiness: A hot proposition, Part 2

Solar energy systems are increasingly common around the nation. Local governments can help this technology expand through proactive planning and reasonable regulation.

Part 1 of this article describes how the master plan can set a vision for the community to become solar-ready. It also covers the issue of solar access – a key policy discussion for the community. Part 2 of this article describes additional zoning provisions to enable and incentivize installation of solar energy systems in a community.

For new development, some communities adopt solar setbacks for determining the appropriate buildable envelope on one property that minimizes impacts (shadows) on neighboring properties (particularly to the north). This type of regulation requires some calculations based on latitude, height of structure, slope of the property and sun angles at certain times of the year (such as during the winter when the sun is lower in the sky).

Traditional zoning setbacks for structures are also relevant for ground-mounted systems or arrays (see photo). Typically the same setback is prescribed for an array as it is for the principal or accessory structures in the zoning district.

Another solar energy aspect to address is where and how they will be approved on a property relative to other existing uses. In other words, where in the community will they be handled as accessory uses/structures vs. principal uses/structures? Once it has been reviewed by zoning administrators, many communities allow solar systems as accessory uses in all zoning districts. In certain districts, it may be appropriate for a solar system to be the principal use for the purpose of commercial-scale energy production or community solar, depending on the size of the project.

Local regulation of solar systems may also attempt to address impacts on neighboring property owners resulting from glare. While glare is less of an issue with newer materials and technologies that increase absorption and minimize reflection, it is often handled with a subjective standard such as ‘avoid directing glare on neighboring properties and streets or roads’ (e.g. see Dundee Township, MI).

There are also aesthetic concerns with placing solar systems on buildings with certain character, such as historic structures. There may be legitimate tradeoffs between the integrity of historic districts and solar energy production, and this discussion is best handled during the planning process with ample public and interest-group involvement. While a community may feel the two are incompatible, the National Trust for Historic Preservation coauthored the report Implementing Solar PV Projects on Historic Buildings and in Historic Districts to show what is possible. Example recommendations include locating solar systems that minimize their visibility from public thoroughfares, requiring low profiles and avoiding installations that would result in permanent loss of character-defining features.

Some communities also strive to require or incentivize newly constructed homes that are solar-ready, meaning they do not require any additional wiring, plumbing, or building modifications for installation of a solar system by the eventual homeowner. One way of doing so through zoning is to offer a density bonus incentive for the construction of solar ready homes or buildings in a new development.

Whether for reasons related to energy security, self-sufficiency, climate change or place-making, more communities are taking the proper steps to update plans and ordinances to allow and even incentivize solar energy. Local governments are encouraged to read Becoming a Solar-Ready Community: A Guide for Michigan Local Governments prepared by Clean Energy Coalition and the Michigan Energy Office. For additional examples of planning and zoning approaches to renewable energy production, see the American Planning Association’s frequently asked questions and community examples on the subject, or contact a Michigan State University Extension land use educator.

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