CHARLES TOWN – The Jefferson County Planning Commission voted 8-1 to recommend that the county’s zoning ordinances permit large-scale solar energy collection facilities on farms and other rurally zoned properties.
The Planning Commission’s majority members agreed on July 23 to forward the panel’s favorable recommendation along with proposed zoning ordinance text changes to the Jefferson County Commission.
After holding a public hearing, the county commission can approve the proposed zoning text changes with or without alterations, or it can reject all of the proposed text changes altogether.
The proposed “text amendment” changes that the Planning Commission approved would allow so-called solar farms within the county’s commercial, industrial and residential zoning districts. They would not be permitted in office mixed-use, residential or village zoning districts.
As proposed, the text amendment would set down specific requirements for solar farm projects such as 100-foot setbacks from property lines, security fencing and lighting and visual screening requirements. Such projects would also have to include a decommissioning plan to return the involved property back to its original rural condition if the solar project is discontinued.
The Planning Commission incorporated into its recommended text amendment last-minute legal language developed by county attorney Nathan Cochran that would require solar farm project developers to obtain long-term financial surety bonds to ensure those projects would be fully dismantled after their contracts or operational lifespans end.
Cochran said he found the authority to require the financial bonds under state code to avert public hazards and nuisances.
His legal language would also require county officials to develop solar facility decommission guidelines. The guidelines should spell out how inactive solar facilities would be dismantled while the farmland involved is restored to its original or near original condition, he said.
Land-use contracts between farmers and third-party solar energy developers can last as long as 30 years, commissioners have said.
Some county residents spoke against solar farms during a recent public hearing, saying the facilities would spoil the county’s rural landscape and possibly leave the county’s environment vulnerable to poorly decommissioned facilities. However, some of the Planning Commission members stated that the facilities can preserve farmland by giving farmers a stable revenue alternative outside of livestock and row crop income.
Ralph Lorenzetti, a voting County Commission liaison member of the Planning Commission, cast the sole vote against the proposed text amendment. To prevent solar farms from filling too many county fields, he suggested requiring those facilities to generate less than 60 percent of a farm’s income.
“I see solar as being something that’s probably needed by the farmers,” Lorenzetti said. “I just have a concern about making the whole farm solar.”
At least two other Planning Commission members said that suggestion didn’t sound workable when commodity prices can fluctuate significantly beyond the control of farmers.
Planning Commissioner Ron Thomas said he initially had some of the same concerns voiced by some county residents during public discussions over whether to allow solar farms. But those concerns have been addressed in several regulatory safeguards the commission included in the proposed zoning changes after careful research and consideration, he said.
According to Thomas, those safeguards exceed “the standards of the surrounding states while preserving the landowner’s right to choice—specifically in regards to use of the personal property.”