Industrial Wind Turbines in R1 District

Visitor Question: Penn Forest Township is a rural municipality in Carbon County, PA. Two applications were submitted seeking to erect 30+ wind turbines on land that is owned by a water company that serves a city in an adjacent county. There would be a lease arrangement. The land is in a R1 residential zoning district.

The first application is on appeal in court and the second is the subject of on-going zoning hearings. The Township also is in the process of developing a zoning ordinance to better address wind turbines and the draft being considered is here. (Editors' Note: The questioner gave us a link to the draft ordinance, but we don't include it, since drafts presumably are dropped or replaced within a few weeks of months.)

At the meeting to discuss it, the out-of-county attorney for the company seeking to build the wind turbines spoke about it. Her gist was that because there is a limited industrial area that it could be challenged as exclusionary zoning.

Penn Forest Township has no municipal water or sewerage facilities so that limits its feasibility for industries and large scale commercial development.

Wouldn't a wind farm normally be in an industrial, commercial or agricultural district and not R1?

Your comments on this and the ordinance in general would be appreciated. Thank you.

Editors Reply: Tackling the big point first, yes, we certainly think that an industrial wind farm with many windmills should be permitted only in agricultural or possibly industrial zoning districts. In most places, commercial districts would not even be appropriate.

So we are completely opposed to this volume of wind generation in a residential district and can't understand why a government would consider this to be an appropriate land use. Rural or not, if a municipality wants to enact a zoning ordinance, some thought should be devoted to which land uses are compatible.

One could argue that too many traditional zoning ordinances were unnecessarily restrictive about land uses that might work well in residential areas. So we have seen a movement toward allowing smaller-scale offices and even retail under some circumstances in residential districts. But the rationale for this is that residents would enjoy being near workplaces and minor shopping opportunities. No resident is going to benefit by being near a wind farm, as opposed to a wind farm that is 5, 10, or 20 miles away.

On the one hand, the draft ordinance that this questioner pointed us to is very detailed and puts many burdens of proof on the industrial wind farm operator. But then this strictness is lost, we thought, by allowing location so near residences and in an area zoned for residential use.

We didn't think that what the attorney for the wind turbine operator said made a lot of sense. The argument appears to be that you, Mr. Township, don't have enough industrial zoned land or agricultural zoned land for us, so if you don't let us locate in a residential district, we will be "excluded." This is quite silly, as actually the purpose of zoning is to exclude certain uses from certain inappropriate places.

Now it could be that this instance should be a wake-up call for your Township that you need to offer a few more choices of land zoned industrial or even agricultural.

We think wind turbines should be allowed in agricultural zoning, but with plenty of safeguards and performance requirements such as the ones included in the draft ordinance.

If you want to raise this point with your Township, you could point out that industrial zoning districts often allow all the commercial district permitted uses as well, so as to allow more flexibility.

In your particular situation, your Township might prefer not to add industrial zoning, but if it is truly rural, as you say, there should be some agricultural zoning districts that would be suitable for industrial type wind farms.

In other words, we agree with you that an R1 zoning district seems to be a very poor choice for multiple wind turbines as a permitted use. It seems like the Township is afraid to say no to this land use, and is trying to enact many safeguards against catastrophe and negative environmental impacts instead of dealing straightforwardly with the question of appropriate land use.

This is a generalization, of course. For example, if your entire zoning ordinance is written as a performance-based ordinance where every land use is permitted everywhere providing certain "performance" standards are met, then perhaps we are wrong. But there are very few totally performance-oriented zoning ordinances, and we wouldn't think rural Pennsylvania would likely be the place to find one.

We hope these observations are mildly helpful in this situation.

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