Approving the Land For Solar
Utility-scale solar electric generation within unincorporated Maricopa County follows a process intended to ensure the facility meets health, safety and welfare objectives. In summary, such projects must be entitled under a Board of Supervisor approved Special Use Permit or IND-3 zoning. A Special Use Permit is considered a change in zoning and, per state statute, all changes of zoning must comport to the Comprehensive Plan. Currently, the only land use category identified in the Comprehensive Plan that supports electrical generation is "Industrial." Therefore, if the land under consideration does not already enjoy an Industrial land use designation or IND-3 zoning, the applicant must file for either a "Major" or "General" Comprehensive Plan Amendment, depending upon the acreage of the project, which must be approved by the Board of Supervisors in advance of Special Use Permit approval.
In addition to Special Use Permit approval, solar projects are subject to construction permits, following a demonstration of compliance with the adopted codes, and the conditions of approval of the Comprehensive Plan Amendment and Special Use Permit. The following discussion outlines the processes involved, beginning with the Pre-Application Meeting.
Pre-application meetings are not required for Comprehensive Plan Amendments, but are recommended. Pre-application meetings are, however, required for Special Use Permits. During this meeting, you will have the opportunity to discuss your project with representatives from the County's Comprehensive Planning, Current Planning, Drainage Review, Transportation, Environmental Services, Stormwater Quality, and Flood Control personnel as deemed appropriate by staff. The intent is that you will gain a deeper appreciation for the County's processes and requirements, which will better inform your development decisions. These meetings are 45 minutes in duration and more than one meeting may be required depending upon the complexity of the request. Currently, we charge a nominal fee for this service. You may find the information packet (PDF).
Comprehensive Plan Amendment
As noted above, if the property onto which a utility-scale solar energy facility is proposed does not already enjoy an "Industrial" land use designation as defined by the Comprehensive Plan, or IND-3 zoning, you will need to file an application requesting that the Board of Supervisors approve a change to the land use designation from its current designation, whatever it may be, to Industrial. Per a recently approved revision to the Comprehensive Plan Amendment Guidelines, a project of 640 acres or less in size may be processed as a "General" amendment; however, if the project exceeds 640 acres, a "Major" amendment is required. Both the General and Major Plan Amendment processes involve extensive public outreach and culminate in public hearings before the Planning and Zoning Commission and the Board of Supervisors. The important difference between a General Amendment and a Major Amendment is that the latter is subject to enhanced 60-day notification requirements and may only be heard by the Board of Supervisors during the month of December. General Amendments, on the contrary, do not require enhanced notification and may be heard at any time during the calendar year. Please see the application packet (PDF) for more information. The fees associated with the Comprehensive Plan Amendment are stated on the packet.
Special Use Permit
In other than IND-3 zoning, the Special Use Permit is the mechanism by which a property owner obtains the property rights necessary to develop an electrical generating station. Like the Comprehensive Planning process, the Special Use Permit process involves extensive citizen outreach and culminates in public hearings involving the Planning and Zoning Commission and the Board of Supervisors. Since the Special Use Permit must comport to the Comprehensive Plan, the Board of Supervisors may not approve a Special Use Permit unless the underlying Comprehensive Plan land use designation is Industrial; however, the Planning and Development Department may process a Special Use Permit request concurrently with a Comprehensive Plan Amendment request.
While the Comprehensive Plan Amendment process requires a discussion as to how the proposed facility fits into the context of the larger region, the Special Use Permit requires much more detail. Historically, this involves a precise plan of development, which reasonably demonstrates the developer's ability to develop the project in accordance with the adopted regulations. Staff notes that while the Department strives to build flexibility into the Special Use Permit, staff will not offer support for a Special Use Permit where the developer has not demonstrated that the facility can be constructed in a manner that is consistent with the regulations that govern such facilities. The fees associated with a Special Use Permit are stated in the packet (PDF).