Alternative Energy Facilities
Alternative energy systems such as photo-voltaic solar and wind turbine electric generation facilities are established examples of sustainable technologies, and they have become increasingly attractive to businesses and individual homeowners. In Chester County, solar arrays are being installed on roofs and on the ground, and wind turbines are expanding beyond their traditional locations on farms.
Many municipal land use and zoning regulations, however, were written before alternative energy systems became common. Consequently, local regulations sometimes had the effect of discouraging these systems or prohibiting them outright. For example, zoning ordinances commonly contained maximum height limits that are too low for wind turbines, which typically need to be tall to receive undisturbed wind flow. Ordinances also limited the structures that could be built on yard areas, thus restricting where ground-mounted solar collectors can be installed.
Chester County Municipal Response
Over the past years, more than half of Chester County municipalities have adopted alternative energy system regulations in their zoning ordinances. Municipalities have addressed alternative energy systems in the following areas:
- Alternative energy systems are generally permitted as "permitted uses" or "accessory uses" subject to bulk and lot regulations. This means that these systems are allowed by-right if they meet certain specifications. Upper Uwchlan Township allows wind, solar and geothermal power systems as accessory uses in all districts, except where specifically prohibited. West Whiteland Township regulates solar energy systems as permitted uses in the I-2 General Industrial District. East Coventry Township allows wind turbines as accessory uses in all zoning districts, subject to location and height limits. Schuylkill Township allows commercial solar power facilities in the Township's Industrial/Light Industrial zoning district, subject to specified standards.
- Regulations protect adjacent landowners from potential adverse effects of alternative energy systems. Almost all regulations limit the location of solar power facilities with the intent of limiting glare from solar panels and separating wind turbines from neighboring residences to reduce the perception of noise at lot lines.
Municipal Case Studies
In addition to addressing alternative energy facilities, local municipalities in Chester County are integrating other sustainable practices into their policies and into their regulations. West Chester Borough, Willistown and West Vincent Townships have addressed sustainability in different ways. The Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission also contributed by providing guidance on municipal alternative energy regulations.
West Chester Borough
West Chester Borough promotes sustainable practices through a section of the Borough Zoning Ordinance. The central area of the Borough, located along Gay Street to the north and Market Street to the south and including some adjoining areas, is within a special zoning overlay district that permits buildings to be built up to 75 feet, an increase from the 45-foot limit, provided that specific criteria and standards are met. These additional criteria include a requirement that the buildings be designed to earn the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star rating, and be benchmarked annually according to Energy Star requirements. If the building achieves at least a "LEED-NC" rating or higher, the Energy Star requirement would be waived.
In addition to the Energy Star rating, buildings in this zoning district may be built even higher - up to 90 feet - if at least 25 percent of the gross floor area of the entire building is devoted to residential dwellings or hotel rooms. This provision encourages mixed-uses in a downtown location. The combination of residential and commercial land uses in proximity is a sustainable practice because the increased density and interaction of people can reduce the reliance on automobile travel and take advantage of urban infrastructure.
Willistown Township's sustainable practices are expressed by the policies in its comprehensive plan, Guidelines for Growth. The Township's comprehensive planning program began with the first comprehensive plan in 1961, which was updated in 1968, 1979 and again in 1997. In 2001, Willistown and Tredyffrin Townships completed work on the Paoli Community Master Plan, a joint municipal planning effort for the Paoli community that supported a multi-modal transportation center and the growth management needs of the two townships. Finally, Guidelines for Growth was again amended in 2011 as a direct outgrowth of past planning efforts. The 2011 document reflects sustainable land use planning practices oriented to the provision of growth management, environmental resource protection, and recreation planning. The Township's planning policies are regionally consistent, and are compatible with the County's Comprehensive Plan documents including Landscapes, its Water Resources Element Watersheds, and its open space element Linking Landscapes.
Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission
The Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission created Renewable Energy Ordinance Frameworks to serve as a resource for municipalities as they develop and update ordinances to govern the siting of small-scale renewable energy systems in their community, including solar photovoltaic, wind and geothermal. These frameworks provide clear, consistent guidance on how to construct renewable energy ordinances that are consistent with state laws, and which are not overly restrictive or inconsistent with the nature of renewable energy systems, and which promote safe community development.