When can a county or township prohibit renewable energy facilities from locating in the community?
The siting of renewable energy projects on Ohio farmland is a divisive issue these days, pitting neighbors against neighbors and farmers against farmers. Some support expanding renewable energy capacity while others oppose losing productive farmland or changing the rural landscape. A common question arising in this conflict is this: when can a county or township say “no” to a proposed renewable energy development? Several new laws, old laws, and recent court cases can help answer this question, although the answer is not always clear.
The “public utility exemption” from zoning. A long-standing provision of Ohio law that limits county and township land use power is the “public utility exemption” from zoning. Ohio Revised Code Sections 303.211(counties) and 519.211 (townships) specifically state that counties and townships have no zoning authority “in respect to the location, erection, construction, reconstruction, change, alteration, maintenance, removal, use, or enlargement of any buildings or structures of any public utilities.” The historical reason for this exemption is to keep local regulations from interfering with the provision of public utility services to Ohio residents. But what is a “public utility”? The exemption does not define the term, leaving Ohio courts to determine what is and is not a public utility on a case-by-case basis. More on that later.
New powers in Senate Bill 52. Effective in October of 2021, Senate Bill 52 gave new powers to county commissioners over certain renewable energy developments, setting aside the “public utility exemption” in those situations. The new law states that counties can designate restricted areas where wind and solar development is prohibited and can prohibit an individual proposed wind and solar facility or limit its size. These new powers, however, apply only to facilities with a single interconnection to the electrical grid and beyond a certain production size. For solar facilities, that size is 50 MW or more of energy production and for wind facilities, it’s 5 MW or more. Facilities that aren’t connected to the grid or are beneath those amounts are not subject to the new powers granted in S.B. 52. Additionally, facilities that had reached a certain point in the state approval process aren’t subject to the new law. Several Ohio counties have already established restricted areas or worked with townships to determine whether the county will approve individual projects as they come forward.
Authority over “small wind farms.” New wind power development in Ohio a decade ago led to the “small wind farm” provision in Ohio Revised Code Sections 303.213 (counties) and 519.213 (townships). This law allows counties and townships to use their zoning powers to regulate the location and construction of publicly and privately owned “small wind farms,” regardless of the public utility exemption. A “small wind farm” is any wind turbine that is not subject to Ohio Power Siting Board jurisdiction, meaning that it produces less than 5 MW of energy. Some counties and townships have utilized this provision of law to establish setback distances for wind turbines in residential areas.
The “bioenergy” exemptions. Yet another Ohio law limits county and township zoning authority over bioenergy facilities. Found in the “agricultural exemption from zoning” statute, Ohio Revised Code Sections 303.21(C) (counties) and 519.21(C) (townships) states that county and township zoning cannot prohibit the use of any land for biodiesel production, biomass energy production, electric or heat energy production, or biologically derived methane gas production if the facility is on land that qualifies as “land devoted exclusively to agricultural use” under Ohio’s Current Agricultural Use Valuation program and if, for biologically derived methane gas, the facility does not produce more than 5 MW or 17.06 million BTUs of energy. Ohio now has several facilities that fit within this exemption from zoning authority.
Two recent cases examine when a renewable energy facility a “public utility.” The “public utility exemption” from county and township zoning was at issue in two similar Ohio cases concerning biodigesters, facilities that process manure and other solid wastes into methane gas that is used to generate electricity. The most recent is Dovetail Energy v. Bath Township. The township claimed that the Dovetail biodigester located on farmland in Greene County was an “industrial use” that violated township zoning regulations. The owners argued that the biodigester was exempt from township zoning under both the “public utility” exemption and the “bioenergy” exemption.
The case reached the Second District Court of Appeals, which focused a large part of its analysis on the issue of whether the biodigester is a “public utility” that is exempt from township zoning under Ohio Revised Code 519.211. Relying on earlier cases from the Ohio Supreme Court, the court explained that an entity is a public utility if “the nature of its operation is a matter of public concern” and if “membership is indiscriminately and reasonably made available to the general public” as a public service.
The court analyzed the “public service” and “public concern” factors for the Dovetail biodigester, examining first whether Dovetail provides a public service, which requires a showing that the facility indiscriminately provides essential goods or services to the public, which has a legal right to demand or receive the goods or services, and that the goods or services can’t be arbitrarily withdrawn. Because Dovetail generates electricity that is sold into the wholesale energy market and used to provide energy to local utilities and customers and because Dovetail is also required to provide renewable energy credits that it cannot arbitrarily or unreasonable withdraw, the court concluded that the facility is a “public service.”
Factors determining whether Dovetail’s operation is also a matter of “public concern” that the court analyzed included whether Dovetail “serves such a substantial part of the public that its rates, charges and methods of operation become a public concern.” The court looked to Ohio’s incentives for renewable energy development, the lack of competition in the electric grid, the “heavy” regulatory environment for Dovetail, and its payment of public utility taxes as indications that Dovetail and the energy it produces are “public concerns.” Meeting both the “public service” and “public concern” components, the appeals court agreed with the lower court’s ruling that Dovetail is a public utility and is exempt from Bath Township zoning regulations.
The Dovetail decision echoes an earlier decision in the Fifth Appellate District, Westfield Township v. Emerald Bioenergy, where the appellate court examined a biodigester on farmland in Morrow County and found that the township could not regulate it because it is a “public utility.” The court cited factors such as Emerald’s provision of electric to the general public through interconnection agreements that distribute the energy to the energy grid, its lack of control over which customers receive or use the energy, its renewable energy credit requirements that can’t be arbitrarily or unreasonably withdrawn, its acceptance of waste from any customer, its governmental regulations and oversight, and its public utility taxes. The court also noted that it need not address the “bioenergy” exemption because it found the enterprise to be a “public utility.”
Both townships in the Dovetail Energy and Emerald Bioenergy cases requested a review of the decision by the Ohio Supreme Court. But the Supreme Court decided not to hear either case, although several of the justices dissented from that decision in each case. Without further review by the Supreme Court, the appellate court decisions stand.
What do these cases mean for solar energy facilities under 50 MW? Recall that S.B. 52 allows counties to prohibit or restrict solar facilities that are 50 MW or higher, but no other law addresses solar facilities with a single interconnection point to the energy grid that produce less than 50 MW. Would such a facility be a “public utility” under the public utility exemption? As with Dovetail and Emerald, a court would have to examine the solar facility and determine whether “the nature of its operation is a matter of public concern” and if “membership is indiscriminately and reasonably made available to the general public” as a public service. If so, a county or township could not use zoning to prohibit or regulate the location or construction of the solar facility.
Learn more about renewable energy laws in the Farm Office Energy Law Library at https://farmoffice.osu.edu/our-library/energy-law.