Addressing Solar in the Zoning Code and other Local Ordinances

Zoning codes, solar ordinances, and comprehensive plans can establish the vision and goals for solar development within a community. They can establish solar as “by-right” or “as-of-right” and set forth clear guidance for the development of rooftop, ground-mounted, and large-scale solar systems, removing major procedural barriers by creating a precise, regulatory pathway for solar-energy development. Policies can include integrating solar into comprehensive planning documents and subdivision regulations, modifying aesthetic requirements, and encouraging solar-ready construction.

Common practices for integrating solar into existing zoning documents include:

  • Establishing clear “as-of-right” zoning procedures for the installation of small- and large-scale photovoltaic (PV) systems in appropriate districts.
  • Including small-scale residential and commercial systems as qualified accessory uses permissible in all zoning districts.
  • Exempting solar systems from unreasonable restriction by homeowner associations and other governing covenants.
  • Exempting solar systems from height and setback requirements that may restrict roof-mounted and ground-mounted installations.
  • Considering and modifying lot regulations that may restrict solar systems. For example, some jurisdictions may count ground-mounted systems as impervious surfaces even though they are elevated off the ground and are not impervious surfaces.
  • Considering and modifying historic and other special zoning district review processes that may inhibit or delay solar installations within those districts. Care should be taken to make solar provisions for special zoning districts minimally restrictive while respecting aesthetic concerns within the zones.
  • Encouraging or requiring new subdivisions or developments to consider solar systems in their design process. This could be accomplished by consulting solar-ready construction guidelines, optimizing building orientation for active and passive solar access, and documenting that such options were considered.

Solar Access Ordinance

If increased solar-energy use is prioritized as part of jurisdiction policy, an ordinance protecting solar access should be created. Incorporate policies that address siting and land use along with landscaping considerations in order to facilitate access to solar. A solar access ordinance will reduce potential for legal challenges around solar rights.

The following elements should be included when developing the solar access ordinance:

  • A clear and quantifiable standard for what constitutes an unreasonable restriction on solar systems. For example, a restriction that increases the cost by 10 percent could be considered unreasonable.
  • Define the types of structures covered by the ordinance. For example, commercial buildings, residences including single family homes and multi-tenant complexes, garages, and other structures could be included.
  • Protection of solar access by regulation of the orientation of streets, lots, and buildings, maximum building height limits, minimum building set-back requirements, limitations on vegetation type, height, and placement, and other provisions.
  • Consider establishing buffer zones and additional districts that protect solar access.
  • Revise any local ordinances that may unintentionally inhibit solar access, such as building-height restrictions, aesthetic requirements, and formally addressing potentially conflicting policies.
  • Consider establishing recordation procedures to facilitate future dispute resolution.

Creating a Permit Checklist

A permit checklist can help guide an installer or other interested party through the permitting process by clearly stating all of the necessary types of plan reviews and required permits for a solar installation. A basic permit checklist would outline the sequential steps of the permitting process while a more comprehensive checklist would also include applicable standards for each step in the review process. The checklist should include all of the information that a jurisdiction would require in order to permit a solar installation. The checklist content will likely vary according to local context, such as density of development or weather conditions (such as snow or ice that can add weight to roof loads). Jurisdictions should review their own local regulations and guidelines should distinguish procedural differences between residential and commercial installations.

A basic checklist may require the following information:

  • Age of the structure.
  • Roof type and material.
  • Roof structural elements.
  • Weight of solar panel arrays.
  • Type of solar panel mounting hardware.

A more comprehensive checklist may require additional information:

  • Line diagram of electrical system (solar array configuration and wiring, grounding, points of interconnection, etc.).
  • Solar array information (number of modules in series, voltage, current, etc.).
  • Site plan showing location of building in relation to street and property lines.
  • Structural plans demonstrating sufficient support and uplift of photovoltaic (PV) panels.
  • Professional electrical engineer’s stamp.
  • Professional structural engineer’s stamp.
  • Manufacturer’s cut sheets for all components.
  • Signage requirements.
  • List of all equipment and components.