Explained: NJ Land-Use Approval Process

Ground Mounted Solar Projects

Municipal Zoning/Planning Approval (566 Municipalities in NJ)
All land development activities in the State of New Jersey require some level of Municipal approval. Typically, solar farms require site plan approval from either the Municipal Zoning Board, or Planning Board. The first step in obtaining municipal approval is determining which Board your application will need approval from. This is typically done by determining the zoning criteria for the property being developed. If solar projects are a permitted use in the applicable zone than the Planning Board’s approval is required. If solar projects are not a permitted use, than the applicant must obtain the Zoning Board’s approval.

Typically an application is made to either the Planning or Zoning Board which contains the following at a minimum: Application Forms, a fee, Site Plans, Land Survey, Stormwater Report and any other reports. Often, Municipalities will require more than these items, and the level of detail for each will vary from municipality to municipality. For example, Municipality ‘A’ may require an Environmental Impact Report for any land development activity, while Municipality ‘B’ does not. One can usually determine which items will be required from a municipality by looking at the municipality’s site plan application checklist.

Upon submission to the Municipality, the appropriate board will determine whether or not the application is “complete”. A “complete” application means that the appropriate board and its professional’s have received the information (listed in the checklist) necessary to make a decision on the application. Based on the Municipal Land Use Law, a municipality has 45 days to either deem an application complete, or incomplete.

Once deemed complete, the application will be placed on an agenda to be heard publicly in front of either the Zoning or Planning Board. At this public hearing, the applicant is typically represented by a Land Use Attorney, Professional Engineer, and any other professional’s required (Planners, Traffic Experts, etc.) The Zoning/Planning Board typically also has consultants such as an Attorney, Professional Engineer, and Professional Planner which aid them in determining whether an application should be approved/disapproved.

At the hearing the applicant’s attorney will present the application to the Board with the aid of the applicant professionals. The Board will listen to the applicant’s presentation, along with feedback from the Board’s professionals, and the public. The Board will then vote on whether to approve or disapprove the application.

If an application is approved, a Resolution of Approval will be drafted which will usually contain conditions of said approval. This Resolution will become official when it is memorialized at a public hearing 1 month after the original public hearing. The conditions and comments in the Resolution of Approval must be satisfied prior to an application being completely approved through a process called Resolution Compliance. Once the resolution compliance process is complete, the applicant can then apply for building and zoning permits.

Timeline for Municipal Approval – Varies between 4-6+ months

County Approval (21 Counties in NJ)
On a majority of Land Development projects in New Jersey, some form of County approval is necessary. This approval is usually required by the Municipality as a condition of any approval (see above) and a building permit application cannot be made without it. The process for obtaining a county approval varies greatly depending on the County and type of Land Development. Typically, unless a solar project impacts a County Road or County drainage facility, the approval process is fairly administrative in nature. County approval can be obtained independently from a Municipal approval.

Timeline for County Approval – Varies between 1-2 months

Soil Conservation District (SCD) Approval (15 SCD in NJ)
For all land development activities disturbing 5,000 square feet or more, a Soil Conservation District approval is necessary. The SCD is responsible for implementing the NJ Soil Erosion and Sedimentation Control Act which governs certain aspects of land development. The SCD is also responsible for administering the NJPDES Stormwater Phase II Program. As part of this program all land development activities which disturb more than 1 acre, must obtain an authorization of construction general permit (5G3).

Approval by the appropriate Soil Conservation District is typically required as part of a municipalities conditions of approval (see above) and a building permit application cannot submitted without it. SCD approval can be obtained independently from a Municipal approval.

Timeline for SCD Approval – Varies between 1-2 months

Various Approvals Require in the State of NJ
The following is a list of several state programs which may require application and approval depending on the location of the project within NJ:

  • NJDEP Freshwater Wetlands Act
  • NJDEP Flood Hazard Control Act (FHA)
  • NJDEP Coastal Area Facilities Review Act (CAFRA)
  • NJDEP Waterfront Development Act
  • NJDEP Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act
  • New Jersey Meadowlands Commission
  • New Jersey Pinelands Commission
  • Delaware and Raritan Canal Commission

Depending on the location of the project, several or none of the above programs can have jurisdiction on the project. The approval process for each varies greatly based on the location and nature of each project.

Timeline for approval – Varies greatly

Building Permits
A building permit application can be made to 2 different entities depending on the type of solar project. For grid connected projects the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs reviews all applications. For non-grid connected projects, a building permit application can be made the local building department.

As stated above, typically a building permit application cannot be made until the applicant demonstrates Zoning or Planning Board approval.

Timeline for Building Permit approval – 30 to 45 days

Roof Mounted Solar Projects

The approval process for a roof mounted solar project is typically more streamlined than the process for a ground mounted system. The theory behind this is that a building has already received Zoning/Planning approval for construction and the solar panels can be considered an accessory to the buildings existing use.

As such, projects that propose equipment which does not exceed the buildings existing height by an exorbitant amount or extend beyond the existing building footprint typically don’t need Zoning/Planning Board approval. For example, placing concrete inverter pads on the ground adjacent to an existing building will often trigger the need for Zoning/Planning Board approval.

A zoning permit will still be necessary for roof mounted solar projects prior to filing building permit applications, however, the public hearing and formal application process is not necessary.

Building Permits
A building permit application can be made to 2 different entities depending on the type of solar project. For grid connected projects the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs reviews all applications. For non-grid connected projects, a building permit application can be made the local building department.

Timeline for Building Permit approval – 30 to 45 days