Is Your Zoning Ordinance “Green” Enough?

On March 4th, 2010 the Tyrone Township Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to amend their Zoning Ordinance to permit a wider range of “green energy” uses. And they are not alone. More and more municipalities are joining the movement to encourage the location of clean, renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, within their boundaries. This is especially true where such sources are readily available. Couple this with current State and Federal incentives and you create a mini-boom in the industry. Municipalities are hastening to ensure that they proactively capture some of the job opportunities and other economic benefits by preparing  for potential development applications.  However, Green Energy is not without its challenges.

One of the biggest challenges with green energy is that the technology is constantly changing. There is tremendous experimentation resulting in quieter wind turbines, smaller solar panels, etc.  A municipality that  wants to encourage such uses must have an ordinance that is flexible enough to permit these emerging technologies without the need to repeatedly apply for variances and special exceptions.  Such an Ordinance must also focus on protecting the public health, safety and welfare standards that are the basis for zoning in the first place.

A second challenge is that not all aspects of green energy are clean and low-impact. For instance, some methods of nutrient recovery involve dehydrating agricultural products at high temperatures. Dust is produced and (ideally) captured, but may still cause air pollution concerns and/or misinformation.

A third challenge is that green energy requires a new perspective and aesthetic value. While harnessing solar energy may be the least intensive energy-producing use of a property, solar farms do not have the same scenic quality of a plowed field or grassy meadow.  Wind turbines may be considered a disruption to the view of a ridge or scenic vista.  The best way to balance aesthetic preferences with the benefits of cleaner energy sources will differ from community to community.

In the Tyrone Township case, this agricultural township to the north of Gettysburg, PA, is home to thousands of chickens. Converting the litter into electricity provides the farmer an alternative to storing and hauling the product for resale, usually as a fertilizer. It also helps meet big picture goals, such as helping to improve the water quality of the Chesapeake Bay, and preserving prime soils through better nutrient management and nitrogen reduction.