Webinar to cover land-use planning around renewable energy projects

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Penn State Extension will offer a Web-based seminar focusing on the potential pros and cons of land-use planning related to renewable energy projects.

To be presented at noon and 7 p.m. on March 20, "Renewable Energy Implementation and Land Use Regulations -- Is There Conflict?" will give participants a look at the different categories of typical renewable energy projects, zoning and permitting challenges, and how municipalities have been responding.

Presenter Ed Johnstonbaugh, an extension educator based in Westmoreland County, noted that the one-hour session will cover the results of a collaborative effort to simplify zoning and permitting problems with a broad-brush approach that can be adapted by municipal bodies to meet their specific needs.

"The law signed by Governor Rendell in 2004 set into motion lots of opportunities for the creation of a renewable energy generation industry in Pennsylvania," he said. "It also set about to meet the challenges created by the expected avalanche of new projects by addressing the shortcomings of the regulatory models that were in place across the state."

In many cases, the project owners and their contractors went about the necessary work in a professional manner, and projects were built without incident, according to Johnstonbaugh. Many municipalities modified pre-existing permits to accommodate these new projects.

But in others, detailed studies and hearings were undertaken to gather public and professional opinion on the subject prior to the crafting and adoption of detailed ordinances that capture every nuance of the new regulatory challenge.

"At the end of the day, what has been found is that renewable energy projects fall into a few distinct categories and that they don't differ much from projects that municipalities have dealt with in the past," he said.

"Specifically, public safety must be guarded, and projects must fit within the usual setbacks. In addition, fire code provisions, ingress and egress limitations, and National Electric Code requirements and inspection must be met."

Often, those with regulatory authority unfortunately have gone about building a better mouse trap, Johnstonbaugh contended, while in other jurisdictions the topic of zoning and permitting is not carefully considered.

Webinar moderator Peter Wulfhorst, extension educator based in Pike County, pointed out that limits and restrictions on land use and property rights often present economic challenges for developers, owners and contractors involved in the growing renewable-energy marketplace.

"Fire codes, utility easements and local covenants also can result in vastly restricted use of property and added expenses for constructing, owning and operating renewable energy projects, such as solar, wind, hydro and biomass installations," he said.

"This session will highlight many of the challenges that well-meaning rules and regulations create for renewable-energy projects and offer comprehensive solutions to minimize or eliminate problems."

The March 20 presentation is part of Extension's monthly Land Use Decision-Making Webinar Series, which provides information about current planning issues, land-use planning tools and techniques, local regulation and community engagement. The sessions are designed to help planners, elected officials and citizens better engage in land-use decision-making processes.

Upcoming webinars will cover the following topics:

--April 17: "Developing More Effective Citizen Engagement: A How-To Guide for Community Leaders."

--May 15: "Low Impact Development and Smart Growth: How Are They Best Integrated and Utilized in Our Communities?"

Two previous webinars -- "Planning in Pennsylvania: Land Use, Communities and Beyond" and "How Pre-emption of Zoning and Other Local Controls Impacts Planning" -- were recorded and are available to registered participants for viewing.

Registration cost for the entire webinar series is $25, and registrants can watch as few or as many webinars as they like. For more information, contact Jeff Himes, extension educator based in Tioga County, at 570-724-9120 or jhimes@psu.edu, or visit http://agsci.psu.edu/land-use-webinar.

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Last Updated March 18, 2013