Maricopa County recognizes the national importance of building a renewable energy portfolio and the opportunities for solar energy development present within our region. To facilitate this development, Maricopa County created two programs related to solar energy: Utility-Scale and Distributed Energy Distributed Energy. Distributed Energy is itself separated into Residential and Commercial.

For purposes of administering the Maricopa County Zoning Ordinance (MCZO) and other regulatory documents, Maricopa County defines “utility-scale” as “an electrical generating system whereby electricity is allowed to enter into the electrical utility grid by means other than a bi-directional revenue meter”. A typical power plant where the electricity that is generated at the facility is stepped up through a series of transformers then routed to the electrical transmission grid through a switchyard or switchgear and distributed to a utility company’s customers falls into this category. This is compared to “grid-connected”, which is defined as “an electrical generating system whereby electricity is allowed to enter into the electrical utility grid solely through a bi-directional revenue meter”, or “off-grid”, which is defined as “an electrical generating system whereby electricity is not allowed to enter into the electrical utility grid by any means”. Residential rooftop solar will fall into the grid-connected or off-grid category.

Essentially, it is the relationship between the energy production source and the utility customer’s service connection that is the distinction. If the energy is being produced commercially on the “line” side of the utility customer’s electrical meter, it is considered utility-scale. If the energy is produced on the “load” side of the utility customer’s electrical meter, it is considered grid-connected. Similarly, if the primary use of the property is the production of electrical power, then a Special Use Permit or IND-3 zoning is required. If the electricity being generated on site is in support of some other allowed primary use also located on site, then it is considered an accessory use and is allowed by-right in all zoning districts.

We hope you find this information beneficial. For more information regarding solar energy in unincorporated Maricopa County, please contact Darren Gerard, AICP, Deputy Director, at (602) 506-7139 or DarrenGerard@mail.maricopa.gov.

The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors has approved the Green Government Program and is committed to supporting sustainability efforts.

Western Maricopa County is experiencing significant utility-scale solar energy development using both concentrating solar power (CSP) and photovoltaic (PV) technologies. As of December 2012, the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors had approved approximately thirty (30) Comprehensive Plan Amendments relating to utility-scale solar energy encompassing approximately 27,000 acres of land, together with approximately twelve (12) related Special Use Permits. Construction on six of these projects was recently completed with a total output capacity of approximately 620 megawatts . These projects can be viewed on our PlanNet GIS mapping system.

NACo Achievement

Approving the Land For Solar

Process:

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 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 by following this link:
http://www.maricopa.gov/planning/PlanningServices/Other/PreApplicationMeeting.aspx

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 at http://www.maricopa.gov/planning/PlanningServices/Planning/ComprehensivePlanAmendment.aspx 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 application packet may be found at http://www.maricopa.gov/planning/PlanningServices/LandUse/SpecialUsePermit.aspx. The fees associated with a Special Use Permit are stated in the packet.

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Constructing Your Solar Project

Construction Permits:

Privately owned “merchant” electrical generating facilities are subject to construction permits, which must be obtained prior to commencing construction on the site. The Department generally prefers that a complete project design be submitted for review; however, we realize that many large-scale projects are “design-build”, necessitating deferred submittals. During the construction permit review process, staff will evaluate the proposed construction against the appropriate construction codes, zoning ordinance/drainage regulations, and the stipulations of approval for the associated Special Use Permit and related Comprehensive Plan Amendment. Staff will also seek review and approval from the One-Stop-Shop partner agencies and in some cases the applicable fire service provider, prior to issuing the permit. All equipment included in the design of the system must be evaluated by a Nationally Recognized Testing Laboratory (NRTL) and many aspects of construction must be overseen by a third-party Special Inspector. Individual permits may be required for different constructs within the facility. A rule of thumb is that if a proposed building requires a separate Certificate of Occupancy in order to begin service, or if the proposed construct requires its own inspection sequence, a separate permit is required. You may also file an application for a Grading-only permit, which will allow you to begin earthwork prior to the vertical construction being approved. A complete listing of construction permit application packets may be found at http://www.maricopa.gov/planning/BuildingServices/Default.aspx.

Generally, fees for construction permits are based on the valuation of the project, although if deferred submittals are requested, there will be an additional charge based on an hourly rate over and above the valuation-based permit fee. A complete listing of permit fees may be found under Section 208 of the Local Additions and Addenda. For more assistance in understanding the fee schedule, please see our Brief Explanation of Fees.

Note that until recently, we were able to offer a concurrent permit review process whereby construction permits could be evaluated while the Comprehensive Plan Amendment and/or Special Use Permit were in process; however, with the implementation of A.R.S. 11-1605, this is no longer possible. All permit applications received after December 31, 2012 are subject to the licensing timeframes as established by the Department. For more information regarding the Regulatory Bill of Rights and Licensing Timeframes, please see the following link:
http://www.maricopa.gov/Planning/pdf/HB2443l Information.pdf

Restoration Bond:

The Special Use Permit will include a condition of approval requiring the applicant to post financial assurances sufficient to cover the cost of site security, stabilization and restoration prior to the issuance of any construction permits relating to the site. This may be in the form of a surety bond, irrevocable letter of credit or cash, and must be memorialized through a Development Agreement, which must be approved and executed by the Board of Supervisors and recorded with the County Recorder prior to the release of any construction permits relating to on-site construction. Upon satisfactory completion of construction, the Department will release the assurance back to the developer. Please contact Rob Kuhfuss at (602) 506-6533 or robertkuhfuss@mail.maricopa.gov for more information on this matter.

Right-of-Way Dedications:

Most Special Use Permits are approved subject to a condition requiring adjacent rights-of-way be dedicated to the County prior to the issuance of any construction permits relating to the site. The dedication process can take time therefore staff advises that applicants start that process as early as practicable. To that end, please see the Right-of-Way Dedication Packet and Title Company Requirements. For more information regarding the dedication process, please contact Kathy Pettigrew at (602) 506-4883 or at kathypettigrew@mail.maricopa.gov.

Right-of-Way permits and Assurances:

Work in the public right-of-way must first be approved through the Maricopa County Department of Transportation (MCDOT). This will entail the preparation and submittal of construction plans for that work, in addition to some form of financial assurance. This is a separate assurance from that discussed under Restoration Bond above. For more information regarding the right-of-way permit process, please contact Jack Situ at (602) 506-8799 or at JackSitu@mail.maricopa.gov. For more information regarding the MCDOT financial assurance process, please contact Elizabeth Valenzuela at 602-506-8791 or elizabethvalenzuela@mail.maricopa.gov.

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References and Guidelines

In accordance with state statute, the Maricopa County Planning and Development Department administers a number of policy and regulatory documents, which include but are not limited to the following:

  • Maricopa County Comprehensive Plan
  • Maricopa County Zoning Ordinance
  • Drainage Regulations of Maricopa County (included in the Zoning Ordinance)
  • Maricopa County Addressing Ordinance
  • 2012 International Building Code
  • 2012 International Plumbing Code
  • 2012 International Mechanical Code
  • 2012 International Fuel Gas Code
  • 2011 National Electric Code
  • Maricopa County Local Additions and Addenda

A complete listing of these policy and regulatory documents may be found at http://www.maricopa.gov/planning/Resources/Default.aspx. Also note that per Section 205 of the Local Additions and Addenda, code cycles may be bridged for utility-scale solar electric generating facilities. Additional regulatory documents are administered by the County’s Air Quality, Transportation and Environmental Services Departments, and the Flood Control District. You may contact these agencies independently for more information.

In addition to the above guidelines and regulations, other agencies may be involved in the evaluation of the project as various stages of the process. These include but are not limited to the following:

  • Maricopa County Department of Emergency Management
  • Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office
  • Maricopa County Parks and Recreation Department
  • Maricopa Association of Governments
  • Arizona Game and Fish Department
  • Arizona Department of Water Resources
  • Arizona State Historic Preservation Office
  • Arizona Office of the State Fire Marshall
  • Arizona State Land Department
  • Arizona Department of Transportation
  • Luke Air Force Base
  • Marine Corp Air Station – Yuma
  • Federal Aviation Administration
  • Bureau of Land Management
  • US Fish and Wildlife Service
  • US EPA
  • US Department of Agriculture
  • Adjacent municipalities and counties
  • Adjacent Native American communities
  • Local single-purpose governments such as fire, irrigation, and school districts
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Other Services Offered

In order to streamline the utility-scale solar development process, Maricopa County offers the following additional services:

Solar Team – Utility-scale solar projects are managed using a team approach. This means that most projects are reviewed by the same reviewers from beginning to end. Likewise, most projects are inspected by the same field inspectors. Collectively, this allows for expertise and continuity throughout the life of the project.

Solar GIS Mapping – All utility-scale solar electric generating facilities are included in our PlanNet GIS mapping system, which allows staff and the general public the ability to isolate solar projects from other projects in the mapping system and to distinguish between solar projects at the various stages of development.

Concurrent CPA/SUP Review – The typical entitlement process involves a Comprehensive Plan Amendment (CPA), which leads to the Special Use Permit (SUP) application; however, this serial progression inherently adds time to the overall entitlement process. Since a typical CPA and SUP each takes approximately six (6) months to process, the overall time spent can be a year or more if these are taken sequentially. In order to reduce the overall time spent in the entitlement process, however, the Department may process CPA and SUP applications concurrently, with the understanding that the SUP approval is contingent upon the prior approval of the related CPA and that all other relevant regulatory requirements are met. This dual-processing of entitlement cases has the potential to reduce entitlement processing times by as much as 50%, thereby providing an opportunity for substantial savings.

Early TAC Comments – Typically, staff endeavors to have all planning cases to the Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) within 60 days of application submittal. Historically, planning staff routes these applications to both internal and external agencies, with direction to provide comment within a specified time period. Staff then gathers all review comments received to date and incorporates them with the comments prepared by the staff planner. This packet of TAC comments is presented to the applicant at the TAC meeting. As an alternative, when circumstances allow, staff will assemble and forward TAC comments to the applicant approximately one week in advance of the actual TAC meeting. This allows the applicant to review the TAC comments in advance of the TAC meeting and come to that meeting prepared to ask questions, potentially reducing the number of follow-up meetings.

Pre-submittal Meetings – The plans for a Special Use Permit must be prepared by a civil engineer who is registered in the State of Arizona; however, it is not uncommon for the owner to award the actual construction contract to a different engineering firm or a full-service engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) contractor. It is important that the final construction design be generally consistent with the preliminary design that was approved during the SUP process. Further, the construction permit review process involves the evaluation of very complex and detailed components, which may include specialized equipment requiring evaluation by a Nationally Recognized Testing Laboratory (NRTL). The type of information and the manner in which this information is presented is important. To help facilitate this process, the Planning and Development Department recommends that a pre-submittal meeting be scheduled as early in the final design process as possible, once the construction contract has been awarded. Several meeting may be required and are even encouraged.

Intake by Appointment – Typically, applicants arrive at the Department and submit their plans over the counter; however, due to the complexity of the solar projects, applicants will schedule an appointment with Department staff for the purpose of facilitating the permit submittal. This allows staff the opportunity to take a cursory look at the plans before committing staff time to a potentially deficient plan set, thereby saving time in the long run. For larger projects, staff and the applicant may establish standing meetings, which provides some regularity to the permit submittal process.

Bi-weekly/Monthly Coordination Meetings – Staff may schedule bi-weekly or monthly meetings with representatives from owner and their EPC contractor. During these meetings, staff is available to address any issues that may have arisen during the preceding two to four week period and can offer guidance for activities during the upcoming period. The applicant sets the meeting’s agenda, with staff being in a supportive/facilitative role. The frequency and duration of these meetings may be revisited as circumstances warrant.

“Top-of-stack” prioritization – Construction permits relating to utility-scale solar projects will receive top-of-stack priority over non-solar permits, provided such prioritization does not hinder the department’s ability to adhere to other performance standards, in particular, those relating to A.R.S. 11-1605.

Bridging of Code Cycles – As noted in the References and Guidelines section above, Section 205 of Maricopa County’s Local Additions and Addenda will allow the bridging of construction code cycles for utility-scale solar electrical generating facilities. Since many of the facilities being constructed in unincorporated Maricopa County are quite large, requiring multiple related but separate permits, having to accommodate changes to the adopted codes could be problematic. By bridging the code cycles, a project may begin construction under one version of the code and finish under that same code, even after the new codes have been adopted.

Trust Accounts – For many years, the Department has offered a trust account program which applicants who conduct business with the Department on a regular basis may utilize to pay for services rendered by the Department. The Department establishes the account with the applicant funding that account by whatever means they deem appropriate. When permit activity generates a fee, the Department will pull from the trust account with the applicant replenishing the account as necessary. The Department will make periodic accounting statements available to the applicant. The funds remain under the ownership of the applicant and are not recognized as revenue by the department until earned by a particular activity. The applicant may terminate the trust account and any time and any remaining funds will be returned to the applicant upon request. This allows the applicant to avoid having to pay by credit card or write a check for the exact amount due after fees are accessed. Further, this allows developers to avoid unnecessary delays in the inspection process that occur as a result of fees being added to an issued permit due to deferred submittals or modifications to approved designs.

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