Zoning Rules Stifle Urban Clean Energy. Can The Rules Be Rewritten?

Outmoded and often discriminatory zoning laws block clean energy development in low-income urban neighborhoods. An effort is underway to update rules, and enable clean energy equity.

An energy transformation is underway in the United States, with clean energy and energy efficiency reducing our dependency on fossil fuels. Yet the advantages of clean energy aren’t enjoyed equally throughout the country. Clean energy development has lagged in older, densely built urban areas. Low-income neighborhoods, in particular, have seen relatively less investment in renewables, and can find it hard to take advantage of technologies like rooftop solar that can lower electricity bills.  And, while there are many efforts underway to address these equity challenges, for example through community energy programs, fundamental barriers to energy transformation remain.

Sara Bronin, professor of law at the University of Connecticut and former chair of Hartford, Connecticut’s Planning and Zoning Commission, explores the impact that one such hurdle, outmoded and often discriminatory community zoning rules, can have on access to clean energy. Progressive rules can ease the adoption of clean infrastructure, yet many zoning regulations date back decades and fail to take modern energy into account.  Bronin discusses the interplay of zoning and energy, and efforts to reform zoning regulations for greater clean energy access.

Andy Stone: Welcome to the Energy Policy Now podcast from the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy at the University of Pennsylvania. I’m Andy Stone. An energy transformation is underway in the United States, with clean energy and energy efficiency reducing our dependency on fossil fuels, yet the advantages of clean energy aren’t being enjoyed equally throughout the country. Clean energy development has lagged in older, densely-built urban areas. Low-income neighborhoods, in particular, have seen relatively less investment in renewables and can find it harder to take advantage of technologies like rooftop solar that can lower electricity bills.

There are many efforts underway to address these equity challenges, for example, through community energy programs. Yet fundamental hurdles to energy transformation remain. One of the most deeply embedded, yet least understood of these hurdles, is zoning, or the rules to determine the types of development that can take place in a given neighborhood. Zoning regulations often date back decades and can prevent the siting of clean energy infrastructure and lock communities into old energy paradigms. Conversely, progressive zoning rules can promote clean development.

On today’s podcast, I’ll be talking with Sara Bronin, a law professor at the University of Connecticut who was, until recently, Chair of the City of Hartford, Connecticut’s Planning and Zoning Commission. In her role, she led efforts to rezone parts of the city for greater social and energy equity. She’ll talk about the interplay of zoning and energy and about efforts to reform zoning regulations. Sara, welcome to the podcast.

Sara Bronin: Thanks so much for having me.

Stone: Now, zoning isn’t the subject that comes immediately to mind when thinking about the challenge of transitioning to a cleaner energy system, but it can be a barrier to the development of clean infrastructure. Broadly, what is the connection between energy transition and zoning?

Bronin: Zoning affects our ability to create transportation-efficient cities and create energy-efficient cities. It can enable both of those things, but for the most part, as you say, it doesn’t. For example, zoning in a lot of places does not allow renewable energy to be installed or, particularly in older cities, to be retrofitted onto existing buildings. Overlain on top of that might be historic regulations that add to the zoning regime. In addition, zoning laws often lock into place transportation inefficient development. So for example, zoning laws often require a minimum of parking spaces for particular kinds of uses. They might require too much pavement and not enough green space, and greenery cools the city. They might totally ignore walking and biking infrastructure, and thus encourage more cars to be used. And so in a lot of different ways, zoning has a link between whether we are using more transportation and particularly using more cars and therefore emitting more greenhouse gases and using more energy, as well as even the energy implements themselves.

Stone: Now you were, until recently, Chair of the Planning and Zoning Commission of the City of Hartford, where zoning reform has recently taken place. What challenges did the city face specifically, and to what extent have reforms improved access to clean energy?

Bronin: So Hartford is one of those post-industrial cities. It’s about 125,000 people. It’s a lot like many other cities around the country. In fact, it was just identified a couple of years ago as one of the most demographically reflective of the entire country, along with New Haven. So Hartford is a story of historic neighborhoods, historic fabric, and in addition, some new development that’s mostly in-fill within our city. The challenge here has really been trying to figure out how we take advantage of new technologies and new trends in thinking about city development and in energy in particular, and to try to make sure that we are not, through our laws, actually thwarting progress in those regards.

So for example, in our zoning reforms, we adopted a whole new zoning code in 2016. We did a complete overhaul of the zoning code. Among other things, what we did was we enabled wall-mounted wind energy and roof-mounted solar in every zoning district, which is, as far as I know, the first city to really do that on such a wide scale. It’s all as-of-right. That means it’s permitted without any special conditions. And there are other kinds of solar and wind allowed, as well. In addition to all of that, just across all of the districts, there are other districts that allow for free-standing solar installations, even large-scale wind facilities along one of our interstate corridors.

We are trying to think ahead in terms of renewable energy. We’re also thinking in terms of energy efficiency. The biggest thing in a city like Hartford, the biggest barrier, I think, to energy efficiency is the fact that we have such a large amount of pavement, and so much of our land is already developed. Again, we were developed at a time when development was more concentrated, which is actually a good thing, as I hope I’ll get a chance to talk about in a little bit. But it also means that there’s just an awful lot of pavement.

What we noticed in the research is that trees have a cooling effect on cities, so we have a huge urban heat island effect in some of our neighborhood, and through the zoning code, what we are trying to do is have tree canopy coverage requirements and also just generally de-emphasize the need to pave and to prevent people from over-paving their lots. And in doing so, we hope to actually cool the whole city and enable greater energy efficiencies within individual housing and commercial environments.

Stone: A couple of moments ago, you mentioned new rules that would allow solar and wind installations on properties in the city. Did the old rules explicitly prohibit that type of development, or wasn’t there enough of a path for them to be developed?

Bronin: That’s a great question. The truth is that most zoning codes don’t even mention renewable energy infrastructure at all. So when an applicant does come to a zoning commission and seeks to, let’s say, install a solar collector, they’ll have to look at the zoning rules for things like air conditioners and other equipment. Or, if the property owner wants the solar installation to be free-standing, the zoning commission may have to look at general rules for accessory structures. Trying to fit those rules to the different kind of animal that is a renewable energy installation has often proven problematic. While many zoning codes don’t expressly reject renewable energy infrastructure, they don’t specifically embrace it, either. And what that does is it causes enough confusion that people are deterred from applying for these kinds of things, or you see stories in the paper where somebody has spent six months, a year — sometimes more — and tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees, just trying to get a single installation underway.

Stone: How much interest have you seen in clean energy, in the densely populated areas of the city we’re talking about, low-income neighborhoods in particular? Has there been much interest, for example, in community-scale renewable energy?

Bronin: Yes, Hartford, for those of you who don’t know, is a very low-income city. It’s often named as one of the poorest cities in the country. So it’s an appropriate question to ask. What do people in Hartford think about clean energy? And I have to say that there is a tremendous interest in clean energy and in energy efficiency in our community and among our families. The question, though, is access. You’ve raised this issue of community energy, and I think that is one way for people in cities like ours, rather densely-built on smaller lots, with buildings that may or may not be suitable for a full-scale solar installation, we’re seeing that community energy could be an important avenue to taking advantage of that interest and bringing clean energy to people who actually really want it.

Community energy, for those listening in who may not know, is a way of sharing energy, basically installing, let’s say, a neighborhood series of solar panels — or maybe even a neighborhood fuel seller or micro-grid — and enabling people to buy energy from that communal source and to share in the benefits of having distributed generation nearby. It’s most appropriate, it’s best used when people live in places that physically don’t enable them to each have their own clean energy installation. And Hartford, with its small lots and smaller building size — row houses and that kind of thing — is actually a perfect candidate for community energy.

Unfortunately, our state does not allow for community energy to be adopted on a wide scale. There has been a small pilot program for shared solar, but that has really been very, very limited, and we haven’t even seen projects actually emerge from that program yet. So we’re hoping to engage residents more in advocacy at the State House for exactly that kind of reform.

Stone: Now to put this into the current context, obviously in the past, we’ve really seen a scaling up or an intensification of the national dialogue on equity, and that has spilled over into the conversation on energy and environmental equity, as well. Let’s talk about the economic impact, then. What is the economic impact, or what economic impact does the lack of access to clean energy have on minority and low-income communities?

Bronin: The term that we like to use in thinking about this issue is “utility security” or “utility insecurity.” That really relates to the amount of money that a family or a household is spending on their energy costs. Believe it or not, many of our families spend an enormous percentage of their income on energy costs. Connecticut has some of the highest rates in the country for energy usage, and it really has become an unsustainable burden on our families. Access to clean energy would enable them to have more control over their own costs, and it would also reduce the amount that they’re spending on energy each month. Electricity costs are just an enormous burden. So there really is a really important link between access to clean energy, access to energy efficiency improvements, and equity. And just on the latter, the energy efficiency improvements — many states, Connecticut is one of them — have energy efficiency programs where homeowners can ask the state, or ask utilities to come in and do a subsidized energy efficiency audit. In a place like Hartford, which has majority renters, there’s a barrier to weatherizing and making more energy efficient their individual housing units. While renters could potentially ask through the existing programs, they don’t, because it’s really the homeowners who have to approve these kinds of retrofits.

So in addition to looking at zoning laws and also just looking at the general questions of who is providing access and how do people get access to clean energy, these individual funding programs and their decisions need to be better targeted to renters and others who simply don’t have access through the more traditional routes.

Stone: There’s also a history of discriminatory zoning that is relevant to everything that we’re talking about today to access to clean energy that you’ve done quite a lot of work on. What are these discriminatory practices, and how do they also impact energy development?

Bronin: I think to answer this question, we probably have to look back to the dawn of zoning, which was about a hundred years ago, when the US Department of Commerce issued a series of regulations to states, calling it the “State Zoning Enabling Act.” And it was states that then allowed local governments to enact zoning codes. Through these zoning codes, many local governments engaged in what can only be described today as discriminatory practices. Sometimes they were explicitly discriminatory. So you had zoning codes like Louisville’s in Kentucky, which was struck down in 1917 by the Supreme Court for explicitly zoning on the basis of race. But after that, even though the communities couldn’t zone on the basis of race or class, they nonetheless did so. And one of the big links between the kind of zoning that has discriminatory effects but may not look discriminatory on its face is the minimum lot size requirement.

Zoning codes control everything that gets built. They can control lots, structures, and uses. But when it comes to controlling lots, most zoning codes around the country say that if you’re going to build a single-family house, it has to be on a certain minimum lot size. When you’re building a community with minimum lot sizes of, let’s say, half an acre or an acre — and sometimes more — you are building what is essentially sprawl, and you are building places that people can’t get around on bike or on foot. So this is going back to this idea of transportation-inefficient communities. When you develop land in this kind of way, you’re really preventing people who don’t have access to cars, people who can’t afford to purchase a large amount of land — so you’re excluding them from those kinds of communities. So the link, to me, is really the sprawl — the issue of sprawl — the issue of minimum lot size, land use. Minimum parking requirements is another thing that we can talk about, if you’d like. But all of that makes for a transportation-inefficient world, and it also has discriminatory impacts, and those are well documented.

Stone: I also wanted to bring up the point here that you are involved in an organization, actually one that you established in Connecticut, called “Desegregate Connecticut,” which is actually working on some of these issues, the discriminatory zoning practices that exist in the state. Tell me a little bit more about what’s going on with that group.

Bronin: Desegregate Connecticut is online at DesegregateCT.org, and we had developed over the summer of 2020, assembling a group of like-minded people who really believe that land use laws in our state — and actually across the country; but we’ll focus on Connecticut first — but land use laws in our state have a discriminatory impact. What we’re really narrowly focused on is housing and housing opportunity, access to resources and the fact that too many people in Connecticut simply don’t have a choice as to where they’ll live. So the things that we’re thinking about are housing diversity — trying to create a diverse housing stock. Right now, it’s predominantly single-family homes on large lots, just like I was describing, making transportation-inefficient communities. Housing supply, to try to make sure that we are generating more housing than we are. Much of the housing we would be generating is actually constrained by red tape, and that primarily comes from zoning. And then finally, just improving the process for development, and that’s probably something that zoning could use across the board.

Stone: So in Hartford you changed the zoning rules, and through Desegregate Connecticut, you’re also working on a broader, statewide effort to update zoning rules, as well. Per your experience, how have stakeholders, from residents to politicians, responded to these calls for zoning reform?

Bronin: I’ll start with Hartford first. We started our zoning reform effort in 2014 in earnest and really just started consulting very widely within the city, across a range of stakeholders: business owners, residents, neighborhood associations, environmental groups. And we all came to a consensus that what we needed in Hartford were forward-looking land use rules that enabled development, but enabled it in a directed way. And the consensus that we built around that enabled us to adopt some of the biggest reforms at the local level of almost any city in the country. We became the first city to completely abandon minimum parking requirements, which to me is one of the scourges of zoning codes nationally. We also instituted a wide variety of environmentally friendly provisions, from electric vehicle charging station requirements to tree canopy coverage to stormwater infrastructure fees, and so on.

To other people, it seems like a big stretch that we were able to adopt those here, but from what we understood from people living here, there was a big interest in having a forward-looking environmental zoning code. And we adopted it unanimously in one night. There was almost unanimous, enthusiastic support at that public hearing, and we got a huge amount of, again, community and neighborhood support. That has been our local experience. Now, on the statewide reforms and the Desegregate Connecticut reforms, we’re tackling something that I think some people have a knee jerk reaction to. The knee jerk reaction can be characterized by this phrase: “Not in my backyard.” Probably most of your listeners have heard of this. We’re trying to change “Not in my backyard,” to — I don’t know if you want to call it “Yes, in my backyard,” or “Open communities,” or however you want to put it. We want to change people’s minds to say, “This knee jerk reaction against greater housing diversity, against moving away from the exclusively single-family zoning model is actually good for not only the existing owners of single-family housing, but also for us as a state as a whole.

So I would say at the local level, it was a different reaction because we had such an engaged process and because people really kind of coalesced around a particular set of ideals — and those were embodied in our code — versus the state level, where I think people need more of that engagement and need more of a reason to move in the right direction. And I have a lot of confidence that eventually people will, and they’ll see that to have a level playing field across the state will actually help Connecticut grow economically and will also protect the environment, while also advancing equity. I think we can do all of that.

Stone: Let’s continue with this idea of the path forward. What needs to be done? What specific reforms would you like to see in Connecticut, and what reforms have you been pushing for through Desegregate Connecticut?

Bronin: I mentioned the three priorities for Desegregate Connecticut. Those are housing diversity, housing supply, and process improvement. And we’re identified a suite of initial ideas as to how we might achieve that, and we’ll be refining those through the fall, in the hopes of advancing those in the regular session once the legislature returns in January, 2021. But among those generally, proposals include several proposals to use more efficiently buildings that already exist and transportation infrastructure that already exists.

For example, what we think the state should do is to enable accessory apartment units, which are small, independent living units where one or two people, or maybe small families, might live. We think that if the state says, across the board, “Accessory dwelling units are allowed on any single-family property,” we will see a great increase in the number of these small-scale dwelling units which are first more affordable to people who want to live in high-resource communities, than at, say, a detached, single-family home, and second, using the building stock that we already have — using the embodied energy of those buildings. Similarly, what we have suggested is that around transit nodes, development be enabled and unlocked. So we’re suggesting that within, let’s say, a half-mile radius of train stations and maybe a quarter-mile radius of your small town Main Street or your commercial quarters, we as a state say that two-to-four unit dwellings are allowed, or mixed-use housing is allowed, where it might be housing on top of retail stores.

We also think that in general, reducing excessive parking requirements is something that we have to look into as a state. Parking requirements vary widely across jurisdictions in Connecticut. Some cities even require two or more parking spaces for a single efficiency unit. Sometimes that means that the amount of parking that’s required is larger than the efficiency unit that’s actually being built. So what does that do to the cost of the unit? It drives up the cost, making it unaffordable and probably making it unattractive for a developer to build. So instead of encouraging people to build smaller units, to build multi-family housing, we’re discouraging it through parking requirements. And not only that, parking requirements, research has shown, actually encourage more driving. Of course, the more parking you provide, the easier it is for somebody to own a car and say, “Oh, I’ll just drive here, instead of walk,” even though it’s a very short distance away. So parking requirements subsidize driving, and again, that’s pretty detrimental to the environment.

We’re also suggesting some other things, like training land use commissioners, standardizing permits so that apartment buildings don’t go through what are sometimes very contentious, and in some cases, racist public hearings. Capping fees, so some towns charge developers of affordable housing absolutely insane fees just to go through the application process. That’s something that the state can remedy. And just modernizing traffic and sewer standards. These are some of the things that we have put out there. We’re going to be refining those through the fall, but all of them really speak to changing this mindset of developing primarily detached single-family housing, and again — also the mindset of just building sprawl. We’re using up so much of our farmland in the state and so much of our wooded areas. That’s something other UConn researchers have documented. Even over the last ten years, it has been extreme. And we need to stop doing that in order to save our state.

Stone: When you talk about the requirements for parking for new developments, for example, obviously it would seem in the inner city there are opportunities for public transportation, both to serve people who need it and also reduce the need for cars and energy consumption through those means. Once you get out of the city centers, though, do these requirements (1) still apply, and (2) are there really alternatives for people who may not want to use cars or cars as much to take advantage of public transport to be able to get around?

Bronin: Well, of course not every community in a state like Connecticut is served by transit, but you would be surprised at how many of our communities actually do have rail stations. In addition, we have a bus rapid transit system that was developed under the last governor with fixed transit stations. And I think that’s really the key. When the state has invested significant sums in a fixed station, a bricks-and-mortar — it doesn’t move. It’s not like a bus stop, where you can move the sign, and you can move the bus stop. A fixed transit station is a significant investment, so you’re right that not every community has that opportunity. But I think what we found, especially with the recent construction of this bus rapid transit line, as well as the opening of the Hartford line, which is a rail line between New Haven and Springfield, is that if you build this kind of infrastructure, people will use it. People are no longer happy just sitting in their cars. And I think you’ll see in the coming years, if we embrace that trend, you’ll see some of the suburbs that may not have even thought to have one of these types of transit stations start to ask for them, because it will make the lives of the people who live there a lot easier. Because who wants to be stuck in traffic?

Stone: One other thing I wanted to bring up — I know that you have quite a bit of interest and have done a lot of work on historic preservation. I think it was in one of the papers that you’d written that I read prior to this podcast — I believe that’s where it was — that it mentions that it’s either Connecticut or Hartford that has one of the highest concentrations of buildings that are designated as historic buildings anywhere in the country. And there are particular challenges to clean energy development in and around these buildings because aesthetically, anything that might compromise the integrity of the original architecture can be a problem. Can you tell us a little bit about that facet — historic preservation — again, in the Northeast, where there are so many older buildings already there?

Bronin: Yes. Actually, Connecticut is one of those states that has addressed this very question at the state level. So going back to our conversation about what level of government is best suited to enact wide-scale reform? And in the case of solar energy and historic properties, Connecticut is one of the couple of states that says that a historic commission cannot deny a solar panel or solar energy system from being installed, unless that solar energy system will substantially impair the historic character and appearance of the district. What that means is that it’s a very high bar for a commission to deny solar energy. I think for that reason, Connecticut is actually ahead of almost every other state in saying at the state level local commissions cannot prevent these things from being installed. So we’ve actually seen a huge amount of solar being installed in Connecticut because our local commissions can’t really deny it. That’s different from some of the high-profile denials that you see in D.C. and other places.

Stone: Sara, thanks very much for talking.

Bronin: Absolutely. Thank you so much for having me.

Stone: Today’s guest has been Sara Bronin, Faculty Director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Law at the University of Connecticut. Visit the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy website for more podcasts, policy digests, and blogs covering the gamut of the energy policy universe. If you’d like updates from the Center in your inbox, sign up for our monthly email newsletter. The link is on our homepage. Thanks for listening to Energy Policy Now, and have a great day.


Sara Bronin

Professor, Cornell University
Sara Bronin was a 2020-2021 visiting scholar of the Kleinman Center when she was the Thomas F. Gallivan Chair in Real Property Law at UConn Law School. She currently is a professor at Cornell University.

Andy Stone

Energy Policy Now Host and Producer
Andy Stone is producer and host of Energy Policy Now, the Kleinman Center’s podcast series. He previously worked in business planning with PJM Interconnection and was a senior energy reporter at Forbes Magazine.