Biden Administration Proposes to Revoke Trump Era Rule Limiting Incidental Take Prohibition Under The MBTA

Developers of renewables projects are once again facing regulatory uncertainty regarding the scope of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (“MBTA”) as a result of a proposed rule issued on May 7 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (“USFWS”).  The proposed rule, if finalized as issued, would revoke a rule issued in the last days of the Trump administration stipulating that deaths of migratory birds occurring incidental to lawful activities (i.e., incidental take) are not prohibited under the MBTA.

The proposed rule represents the latest development in a long-running debate.  At issue is whether the MBTA, a law passed in 1918 that was originally intended to prevent the extinction of migratory bird species due to commercial trade and hunting practices, prohibits the incidental taking of protected birds as a result of activities that are otherwise lawful, such as the operation of wind turbines or the clearing of land for a solar project, or whether the law prohibits only the intentional take (i.e., purposeful killing) of protected species.  The issue has resulted in a split among U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals, as well as completely opposite legal interpretations issued by two Solicitors of the Department of Interior within the span of one year in 2017.

By revoking the prior rule, the USFWS would revert to interpreting the MBTA to prohibit incidental take of birds protected under the act, and to employing agency discretion in determining whether an incidental take of such birds warrants an enforcement action.  The proposed rule highlights the need for renewable project developers to implement best practices for avoiding the unintended take of protected migratory birds as a means of qualifying for agency enforcement discretion and thus avoiding fines for noncompliance.  For wind energy projects, this can largely be accomplished through complying with the USFWS’s Land-Based Wind Energy Guidelines, although there is no guarantee that such compliance will preclude an enforcement action.  There are no solar-specific guidelines currently in place.  While the risk posed to migratory birds from solar projects is less than that for wind projects, solar developers should nonetheless implement best practices for reducing impacts to birds, including the general Nationwide Standard Conservation Measures for project development.

Eastern Pennsylvania Zoning Hearing Board Rejects a Developer’s Application for Large-Scale Solar Project

With the development of large-scale renewable energy projects, municipal land use officials and private developers face the dilemma of how to classify and address such uses when zoning ordinances do not expressly mention them. Such omissions may be intentional, or, more often, may simply be the result of failures to update their ordinances to account for the changing energy production market.

A recent example of how these issues play out was a decision by the Lower Mount Bethel Township, Northampton County Zoning Hearing Board. There, Glidepath Ventures, LLC d/b/a Prospect 14, desired to construct a 61,000 solar panel facility to generate electricity for public consumption within the Township. The developer had targeted a 130-acre property located largely within the Township’s Agricultural District, and partially within its Conservation District. The Township zoning ordinance does not permit solar panel facilities in any district but does permit “any other use not otherwise listed in any zoning district” as a conditional use within the Township’s Industrial District. Although the developer argued that there was no suitable undeveloped property within the Industrial District, the Township’s expert testified that there was a suitable site within that zone, although the undeveloped space was limited.

At bifurcated hearings spanning several months, the Developer initially sought a use variance to allow the solar facility in the Agricultural and Conservation Districts or, in the alternative, challenged the validity of the Zoning Ordinance, alleging that it was legally defective by excluding the proposed use. After finding that the developer had failed to establish the requisite unnecessary hardship for the grant of a use variance, the Board considered whether the use was either de jure or de facto exclusionary by either expressly or in practice prohibiting the legitimate solar facility use. Ultimately, the Board held the ordinance was not exclusionary because it did not expressly prohibit solar facilities, and the proposed use could be permitted as a conditional use in the Industrial District because it was not otherwise listed in any zoning district.

The Board issued its written decision on April 28. As of this date, no appeal has been filed.

The decision in Glidepath Ventures highlights the need for municipalities and developers alike to consider how they classify and define renewable energy uses. By failing to provide for a legitimate use, the Township was placed in a precarious situation, and if it had not included a provision permitting all other uses within the Industrial District, the ordinance may have been found to be de facto exclusionary and therefore invalid. In addition, the decision is indicative of the disconnect between the type of use and land considered by developers to be functional for larger renewable energy products, and what zones municipalities believe to be suitable from a zoning context. How municipalities classify and define renewable energy uses will likely continue to evolve as renewable energy development increases and cases such as Glidepath Ventures become more prevalent.