Illinois Establishes Solar & Wind Siting Standards; Counties on Short Timeframe to Comply
The Illinois General Assembly recently enacted legislation, which the Illinois governor signed into law, that addresses county-level regulation over the siting and zoning of larger solar and wind projects. Among other things, the bill:
- Prohibits counties from enacting local ordinances that disallow commercial solar and wind generating facilities in select zoned districts;
- Recognizes county authority over certain siting and zoning standards, while restricting many county-level standards that effectively prohibit development of such facilities; and
- Prescribes certain procedural processes and timelines associated with the siting and zoning reviews of these facilities and prohibits the assessment of unreasonable county fees associated with the siting and zoning process.
Key Points in the Bill
The legislation applies to commercial solar and wind facilities. Covered solar facilities are generally defined as ground-mounted systems that generate power for the primary purpose of wholesale or retail sale and not primarily for on-site consumption. Covered wind facilities are those equal to or greater than 500 kilowatts in total nameplate generating capacity. Notably, there are exceptions for certain defined categories of solar facilities that are located on or adjacent to former coal mines; the legislation does not restrict counties in their siting and zoning authority for those facilities.
The bill seeks to prohibit counties from enacting local ordinances that contain an outright ban on solar and wind projects on land zoned for agricultural or industrial use. Specifically, the legislation states that a county may not adopt zoning regulations that disallow, permanently or temporarily, solar and wind facilities from being developed or operated in any district so zoned.
The legislation provides that a county may establish standards for commercial solar and wind facilities but may not set standards that are more restrictive than those contained in the bill itself. If a county has an existing ordinance that conflicts with the bill (i.e., it contains more stringent standards), the county has until May 27, 2023 to amend its ordinance in a manner consistent with the bill.
In addition to broad language restricting county level regulation of the siting and permitting process, the bill contains a laundry list of specific rules about facility siting and design components. Those provisions provide specific guidelines for setbacks relating to surrounding property, including participating and non-participating properties, public roads, residential and non-residential buildings, existing utility equipment and lines, and protected lands. For a solar project, for example, the minimum setback distance must be 50 feet from the nearest point on the property line of a non-participating property to the nearest edge of any component of the solar facility.
Other Permissive and Restrictive Provisions of the Bill
- A county must provide siting approval or a special use permit where the request complies with the requirements contained in the bill, the county-adopted zoning ordinance, and any conditions imposed under State and federal statutes and regulations.
- A county may not enact siting rules for “supporting facilities” that preclude development of the associated commercial solar or wind facilities themselves.
- A county may not assess unreasonable permit application fees, and the county-imposed fees for a given solar or wind project must be consistent with the fees for other projects in such county with similar capital value and cost.
- A county may not require standards for construction, decommissioning, or deconstruction of a covered solar or wind facility or related financial assurances that are more restrictive than those included in the Illinois Department of Agriculture's standard solar agricultural impact mitigation agreement or wind farm agricultural impact mitigation agreement, as applicable, and in effect on December 31, 2022.
- A county may not condition approval of a covered solar or wind facility on a property value guarantee and may not require a facility owner to pay into a neighboring property devaluation escrow account.
- A county may require that no component of a solar project’s solar panels have a height of more than 20 feet above ground when the arrays are at full tilt, unless each affected non-participating property owner waives such restriction.
- A county may require certain vegetative screening surrounding a solar or wind facility but may not require earthen berms or similar structures.
- A county may not enact sound restrictions for solar facility components or wind towers that are more restrictive than existing Illinois Pollution Control Board standards.
- A county may require a covered facility to (i) plant, establish, and maintain vegetative ground cover for the life of the facility, consistent with the goals of the Pollinator-Friendly Solar Site Act, and (ii) prepare and submit a vegetation management plan.
- A county may require a developer to provide the county with various reviews performed under Illinois Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Illinois State Historic Preservation Office requirements, and to comply with certain recommendations contained in such reviews.
In addition, the bill imposes road preparation, improvement, repair, and maintenance obligations on developers of covered solar and wind facilities. The bill also allows solar facilities to cross or impact certain drainage systems without obtaining prior agreement from the drainage district so long as all damage to the drainage system is repaired.
This legislation is likely not the final word on county siting and zoning of solar and wind projects in Illinois. New so-called “trailer bills” have already been introduced that relax or otherwise modify the legislation’s requirements and prohibitions.
For more information on how this solar and wind siting legislation may benefit or affect your business, contact: