Community Wind Handbook/Understand Permitting & Zoning

From Open Energy Information

Community Wind Handbook

Understand Permitting & Zoning

To better understand local county and township rules regarding wind energy, you should first recognize the differences in regulation types, including ordinances, zoning, and permitting.

Ordinances are laws, often found within municipal codes that provide various degrees of control to local governments. These laws cover issues such as zoning, traffic, consumer protection, and building codes. A wind energy ordinance reflects local needs and wants regarding wind turbines within county or city lines and aids the development of safe facilities that will be embraced by the community.[1]

Myers Equipment Corp. - a full-service distributor of school buses, ambulances, and other truck equipment - is powered in part by a 50-kilowatt wind turbine. Photo from United Wind, NREL 26772

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 without rules or general knowledge about wind energy.

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.”[2] In terms of wind energy, that means that zoning basically controls whether an individual can install a wind turbine.

Permitting, on the other hand, controls how a wind turbine is installed, and it is an essential step in the turbine installation process. It is utilized so local governments can review and allow for wind energy developments. Permits are usually granted in accordance to the provisions of the ordinance regulating the development of wind systems.[3] By contacting your local authorities, you can learn the type of permitting needed for your project. Most jurisdictions that have established ordinances pertaining to turbines allow the machines to be installed through permitted use, accessory use, or through a conditional use permit.

A conditional use permit allows the installation of a small wind turbine where it is not specifically prohibited, but only if the project adheres to certain conditions and only in certain locations.[4] Non-compliance in terms of meeting the conditions in the conditional use permit may cause a system owner to lose a permit and to pay to remove the tower.[5]

In planning and zoning, accessory uses are typically defined as activities and land uses that are incidental, or secondary, to the primary use of the area.[6]

It should be noted that the cost of permitting varies by location and can add a substantial additional cost to a project. When you contact your local zoning administrators, be sure to ask about the costs and types of permits that will be needed for the project and also ask if any previously granted permits are available for review. These can provide insight and guidance for your project plan. A building permit or electrical permit may also be required for the project, which could add additional costs and time. Once you have spoken with your zoning administrator, you may want to create a requirements checklist to keep track of project details.

The time required to acquire permits for a small wind project can also vary by location. If there are other small wind turbine owners in your area, it would be beneficial to contact them to determine what to expect from the permitting process. It is essential to begin the permitting process early to ensure that the project can be completed prior to investing much time or money.

The two most important issues that can be raised during the permitting and zoning process for a small community wind project are setbacks and sound requirements. 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. 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]

A project could be required to follow local environmental requirements and state siting guidelines. Contact your state energy office to inquire if this is the case in your area.

If you are installing a small 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 that have been written by various states and other organizations are available, and they can serve as guidelines for communities planning to establish a wind ordinance.[7]


  1.  "WindExchange. Wind Energy Ordinances"
  2.  "Baltimore County, Maryland. What Is Zoning?"
  3. 3.0 3.1  "Oteri, F. An Overview of Existing Wind Energy Ordinances"
  4.  "Idaho Department of Water Resources, Energy Division. Permitting of Small- and Medium-Size Wind Turbine Projects in Idaho"
  5.  "Sagrillo, M. Zoning Obstacles"
  6.  "Jeer, S. Treatment of Accessory Uses in Land-Based Classification Standards"
  7.  "American Planning Association. Planning for Wind Energy"