Community Wind Handbook/Understand Ordinances Zoning Permitting

From Open Energy Information

Community Wind Handbook

Understand Ordinances, Zoning, and Permitting

Officials or other local parties may pose questions while you navigate the permitting and zoning process for a large community wind project. Questions can pertain to project design, environmental impacts, natural and cultural resource impacts, setbacks, sound requirements, and overall aesthetics. It is important to be prepared early in the development of your project to address concerns.

A thorough understanding of local regulations can help ensure project success. Photo from Luther College, NREL 26493.

Having an initial project design prior to beginning the permitting and zoning process will allow you to address potential concerns. The initial project design should include the locations of the proposed turbines and any associated equipment and the surrounding landscape, to include natural features and man-made structures.[1] To further understand state and local (county and township) wind energy regulations, you should recognize the differences among ordinances, zoning, and permitting.


Ordinances are legal requirements enacted by a municipal government (like a city council), often found within municipal codes. Ordinances cover issues such as zoning, traffic, consumer protection, and building codes. A wind energy ordinance reflects local preferences regarding wind turbines within county or city limits and aids the development of safe facilities.[2] Wind energy ordinances can set the requirements of a permit application, define the necessity and process for public hearings, and provide guidance essential to the subsequent approval or denial of your project’s permit application. Unless the established ordinances are particularly restrictive, it may be easier to install a project in a jurisdiction that has an ordinance as opposed to a location with no rules or general knowledge regarding wind energy.

Other components of wind energy ordinances can include regulations for setbacks, sound, and shadow flicker.

Setbacks are standards defined to create space between areas of concern and the wind project. Common areas of concern include property lines, inhabited structures, public roads, as well as communication and electrical lines.[3] Regulations for setbacks differ depending on the project location.[1] Setbacks can be based on tower, hub, or tip height; rotor diameter; or some combination of the above. For example, setbacks from homes in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, are defined as five times the hub height while they are defined as four times the tip height in Woodford County, Illinois.[4][5]

Sound requirements create a standard maximum level of allowed sound due to the operation of wind systems. These standards often include a defined method of measuring sound level.[3] To alleviate sound concerns related to a large community wind project, the issue should be addressed early in the development process with nearby neighbors and at community meetings, allowing for positive community involvement in this area.[6]

An additional concern regarding the siting of a large community wind project is the potential impact from shadow flicker. Shadow flicker occurs when turbine blades cast shadows across the ground or buildings when the sun is low on the horizon. It can be prevented, or at least minimized by utilizing proper setbacks. Some jurisdictions regulate the number of hours per year, or minutes/hours per day, that a particular window can experience shadow flicker.[7]

If you are installing a large community wind project in a location without a wind ordinance, it's possible that the local government will want to establish one prior to approving your installation. Model wind energy ordinances are available, and they can serve as guidelines for communities planning to establish a wind ordinance.[8] When researching and obtaining other county ordinances to be used for the creation of a new ordinance, it can be helpful to ask if any projects have been built under this sample ordinance. Some counties pass a wind ordinance that is so restrictive that no projects can be built; it essentially functions as a moratorium. As community planning and zoning authorities attempt to regulate safe and responsible projects, it is important to know the results of existing ordinances that are being used to develop local regulations.


Zoning is “a system of land use regulation that controls the physical development of land. It is a legal mechanism by which local government is able to regulate an owner’s right to use privately owned land for the sake of protecting the public health, safety, and/or general welfare.”[9] Zoning controls actions in certain land-use areas, including whether an individual can install a wind turbine in a particular location after obtaining the proper permits required by local authorities. Some jurisdictions have defined specific zones (Wind Energy Overlay Districts, Renewable Energy Zones) which limit wind energy development to certain parts of the town/county where the overall impact will be minimal or in some cases to where the wind resource is best.[3]


Permitting is a process established by local authorities to control development, in this case how a wind turbine is installed, located, operated, and decommissioned. Permits are usually granted in accordance with the provisions of the ordinance regulating the development of wind systems.[3] Contact your local authorities to learn the type of permitting needed for your project, the associated costs, and whether any previously granted permits are available for review.

Most jurisdictions with established wind ordinances allow turbines to be installed through permitted use, accessory use, or through a conditional use permit. The time required to acquire permits for a large community wind project can vary depending on the overall size of the project, whether the project is in a local or state jurisdiction, the established permitting process, results of pre-construction studies and surveys, as well as the community view of the project and other considerations.[1]

It is essential to begin the permitting process early to understand the necessary steps required prior to investing time or money. It is highly recommended that a local attorney is engaged to assist in researching a complete list of permitting requirements and guide the project through the various processes.

Any project with a structure taller than 200 feet, or one planned near airports or other aviation facilities, will require Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) permitting.[10] A related issue is potential interference with military long-range radar, NEXRAD, or military operations. The FAA offers a Department of Defense preliminary screening tool that allows developers to acquire a preliminary review of potential radar related impacts to prior to an official filing.

It may be necessary to conduct an environmental (wildlife and historical/cultural) study to acquire any required environmental permits and to accurately inform local officials and the surrounding community of the potential impacts a wind project could have on surrounding wildlife and other environmental concerns. Properly gauging the impact on wildlife and the environment requires local expertise, including state fish and game agencies, federal wildlife agencies, wildlife or environmental experts from local universities, and other knowledgeable parties such as the state historical and preservation office. These organizations and individuals may help you save time and gather valuable information pertaining to the site-specific wind and wildlife impact and historical impact from your large community wind project. It should be noted that environmental concerns are dependent on the types of plants and animals present at a specific site, as well as the design of the wind project.[11]

During the permitting and zoning process, concerns regarding natural and cultural impacts could be expressed. Speaking with the state historical preservation office or consulting the National Register of Historic Places can help you understand the potential cultural impacts associated with a location, whether a more in-depth study should be conducted, as well as what to do if any artifacts are encountered during construction.[12]

Project aesthetics play an integral role in how an installation will be received by the local public. Signage, lighting, and the location of additional infrastructure can impact a community's perception of a wind project. To ease concerns, project developers should provide a visual representation of the proposed installation to show what the large community wind project will look like after construction is completed.[12]

To ensure proper and safe delivery of turbine components, you must hire a professional transportation company to manage the many logistics involved. The transportation company’s responsibilities include a site review to determine the delivery route and to assess any necessary infrastructure upgrades required prior to component delivery. The company will also secure any needed road/transport permits.[13]

Once parts for the project begin to arrive, it might be necessary to have a designated temporary staging area. This space will be used to store components until they are needed for construction and can also be used to house construction management facilities.

A building permit or electrical permit[14] and driveway permit[15] may also be required for the project, which could add additional costs and time.

Another issue that may be raised during the permitting process is the decommissioning of the project once it has exceeded its working lifetime. The decommissioning of a project should be considered from the planning process and should include the dismantling of the turbine and the restoration of the site. Some communities may stipulate that a project provide a bond or letter of credit that would cover the cost of decommissioning.[16]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2  "Energy Trust of Oregon. Community Wind: An Oregon Guidebook"
  2.  "U.S. Department of Energy. Wind Energy Ordinances"
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3  "Oteri, F. An Overview of Existing Wind Energy Ordinances"
  4.  "Somerset County Planning Commission. Somerset County Subdivision and Land Development Ordinance"
  5.  "Woodford County Government. Zoning Ordinance"
  6.  "Renewable Energy Alaska Project. Community Wind Toolkit: A Guide to Developing Wind Energy Projects in Alaska"
  7.  "Lampeter, R. Shadow Flicker Regulations and Guidance: New England and Beyond"
  8.  "American Planning Association. Planning for Wind Energy"
  9.  "Baltimore County Government. What Is Zoning?"
  10.  "Idaho Department of Water Resources. Permitting of Small and Medium Sized Wind Turbine Projects in Idaho"
  11.  "National Wind Coordinating Committee. Permitting of Wind Energy Facilities"
  12. 12.0 12.1  "Windustry. Community Wind Toolbox, Chapter 5: Siting Guidelines"
  13.  "Town of Auburn, Massachusetts. Town of Auburn Community Wind Development: Technical and Economic Feasibility Study Final Report"
  14.  "Corpus Christi, Texas. Wind Energy Unit Information Packet"
  15.  "Town of Green Bay, Wisconsin. Wind Energy System Zoning Ordinance"
  16.  "Great Lakes Wind Collaborative. Best Practices for Sustainable Wind Energy Development in the Great Lakes Region"