New Land Use Planning Review Process in Texas

As of September 1, Texas has made several changes to the land use planning review process. Specifically, the site plan and subdivision platting approval processes have been shortened to 30 days. The chart to the right demonstrates the revised work flow and timelines used in order to compile with the new planning review process. This new schedule is increasing pressure on local municipalities who are likely feeling pressure to comply with the new application process.

Our community planning team is experienced with navigating legislative and ordinance process changes that create tight deadlines. We have spent years leading clients through city internal reviews and staff capacity issues. By assisting with ordinance and procedural changes, tracking applications, handling communications, and ensuring that all statutory requirements are met, we help our clients meet the needs of their communities. Our team uses an interactive and quality control approach to account for every detail to ensure our clients’ success and the smooth operation of their Planning Department.

Client communities can relax and feel confident that their boards, councils and commissions have all the information they need to make educated decisions during the changing legislative landscape and the entire planning review process.

Learn more about how we can help, contact us.

Effects of Solar Gardens on Vegetation

Roxy Robertson, Environmental Scientist, WSB

Uncovering the potential issue

In the past few years, there has been a push to utilize renewable energy resources. In Minnesota and other states, there has been legislation to require some of this renewable energy to come from solar. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), Minnesota ranks 13th in the nation for megawatt production, producing 1,140 MW of energy from solar. This push for solar has resulted in the development of small-scale and community solar gardens which construct panels across a variety of landscapes, including low-lying wetland areas. 

In Minnesota, there are rules and regulations for impacts to wetlands that include regulations surrounding the placement of a structure in a wetland. These rules are outlined in the Wetland Conservation Act (WCA). The WCA allows the construction of some panels in wetland areas depending on the type of impact, but regulation of these impacts is highly variable throughout the state due to lack of specific language regarding whether solar panels truly cause wetland impacts. There are opinions that suggest that the installation of solar panels within wetlands affect the quality of the wetland vegetation under the panels over time. In addition to these regulations, the Board of Water and Soil Resources (BWSR) also has standards that encourage developers of solar fields to plant vegetation that benefits pollinators.

Currently, there isn’t any research that explores the direct impact of solar panels on wetland vegetation. From small community solar gardens to large utility scale solar gardens, the energy generated can benefit communities, but what is the impact on the underlying vegetation? If solar panels are placed in a degraded wetland such as a farm field, would the installation of panels and native seed mixes improve the quality of wetland vegetation?

Where is the research?

The lack of research explaining direct impacts that solar installations have on vegetation is a challenge for scientists and engineers. Through communication with regulators and developers, we have discovered there is room for growth and study in this area, and it is a topic that needs continued exploration. This data gap has led us to develop our own vegetation studies at community solar gardens. This data is imperative if we are to continue to rely on solar energy resources. Without current guidelines that outline negative or positive effects, we are unsure of the long-term overall environmental impacts to vegetation quality under solar panels, which in turn affects the quality of natural habitat and functional benefits provided by the landscape. How do energy companies know if they are impacting the environment that surrounds solar gardens? Pursuing funding for extensive research has been challenging for those who are curious about the effects of installation of solar technology on surrounding vegetation. Even after preliminary research, many questions remain surrounding the shading of solar panels and vegetation, direct impacts, and long-term effects.

What does this mean for the future?

SEIA projects that Minnesota’s solar energy consumption will grow by 845 megawatts within the next five years. Financial support to continue this research is necessary and will allow scientists to uncover data at solar sites that does not yet exist. With this data, we can better understand the environment, impact of projects on vegetation, and develop tools to distinguish impacts. Developers looking for land will better understand the risks involved when building a solar garden on or near a wetland. As need and desire for renewable energy increases, more energy companies will implement solar. However, if we are not aware of the impacts solar gardens have, how will we know if there is an additional cost to the environment? Knowing areas to avoid allows companies to be certain of regulations, save time and money, and limit impacts to surrounding wetlands. We are continuing to complete research to better understand the impacts and benefits of solar arrays on underlying vegetation. 

Roxy is an environmental scientist and certified wetland delineator. She has a master’s degree in ecology and is a Certified Associate Ecologist . She has completed numerous wetland delineations and has experience with wetland monitoring, ecological restoration design, environmental site assessments, field research, biological surveys, ArcGIS mapping, and GPS Trimble.

Applying for grants: 5 Things to Consider

Mary Gute, Sr. Transportation Planner, WSB

You encounter many opportunities to pursue grants throughout the year. Grants can be a great way to fund community needs. However, preparing applications comes with expense – staff time and effort or consultant fees. Not to mention, there’s no guarantee you’ll be awarded anything. Is it worth the effort? Below are some things to consider when making a decision.  

1. Know the program requirements

  • Does your project or need fit the eligibility requirements? Try talking to the grant administrator to see how well your project fits within the program requirements.
  • If a local funding match is required, make sure your community has the funds available.
  • If the grant is for construction, does the project need to be let or constructed by a certain date? If so, be sure your community meet that requirement.

2. Know the real level of effort

  • Calculate the cost: consider staff hours or consultant fees needed to prepare the application.
  • Can your community meet all of the application requirements, including the due date?

3. Identify the grant team

  • Assign a grant champion – the person who will see the application through from start to finish.
  • Identify who will provide the technical portions of the application. For example: engineering layout; cost estimates; benefit/cost analysis; etc.

4. Obtain necessary approvals and endorsements

  • Is your community leadership on-board with pursuing the grant?  
  • If the application will benefit from outside support from stakeholders or elected officials, be sure to request those items early.

5. Identify unstated factors that may influence success

  • Has your community recently been awarded money from this funding source? Oftentimes, grant administrators award money based on historic awards in an effort to ensure everyone has an opportunity.
  • Identify any outside factors that may influence selection.

Thinking about the items above will help you make an informed decision – balancing the level of effort required compared to the likelihood of success.

Need help deciding whether or not to go after a grant or wondering if any grants might fit a project? We can help.

Mary is a Sr. Transportation Planner at WSB with over 17 years of progressively complex transportation planning and project management experience, gained from working on a variety of transportation projects for modes including roads/bridge, transit, and trails.