CHARLES TOWN – The West Virginia Public Service Commission has approved open farmland south of Charles Town as a suitable site to build a 795-acre industrial solar energy-generating project.
After holding public hearings last month, the state utility regulator’s decision marks one hurdle the Wild Hill Solar project needs to successfully jump over to move forward.
Meanwhile, whether solar farms should be allowed “by right” as a permitted use or reviewed under a potentially more restrictive “conditional use” process arose several times again before the Jefferson County Planning Commission.
During a public hearing last week that drew comments from 16 people, several residents repeated recommendations from earlier public hearings and workshops that a proposed zoning ordinance change that would govern whether and how such solar farms operate in the county should be approved as a conditional use.
The Planning Commission plans to discuss and possibly adopt another recommendation to send to the county commission to adopt an ordinance change to allow solar farms. That discussion will take place during a special meeting next Tuesday starting at 7 p.m.
The proposed ordinance change would direct the placement, design and construction of large-scale solar projects that would harvest sunbeams to generate electricity for a profit.
As currently written, the proposal would also make solar farms a permitted use in eight land-use categories that include rural, residential, commercial, office and industrial activity zones.
Allowing proposed solar farms to be reviewed as a permitted land use would assign the Planning Commission to evaluate general concept plans for those projects.
While accepting public comments, the commission could negotiate changes to a project’s plans with a developer. But the commission could not impose its recommendations if a concept plan conforms to the county’s zoning regulations.
Allowing solar farms as a conditional use activity, however, would assign reviews to the Jefferson County Board of Zoning Appeals. After holding a public hearing, the board would have more authority to impose more specific requirements on proposed solar farm projects.
Some residents pointed out during last Tuesday’s hearing that the Jefferson County Development Authority has urged that proposed solar farm projects be reviewed as a conditional use activity.
The Public Service Commission approved the farm site for the $125 million Wild Hill Solar project, stating the facility would benefit Jefferson County by helping to develop solar and other renewable industries in West Virginia.
According to industry representatives, solar farms would need to be within a half-mile of the five electrical utility substations in the southern portion of the county, a requirement that would greatly limit the number of such projects in the county.
Wild Hill Solar is a San Diego, California subsidiary of EDF Renewables Development, a French-owned firm with an office in Minneapolis that internationally develops, builds and operates solar-electric generating facilities.
According to Wild Hill representatives, the project’s 237,552 photovoltaic panels would cover less than half of the site’s 795 acres located three miles from Charles Town. Construction is slated to begin next fall and finish in the third quarter of next year.
The facility would operate for as long as 30 years, after which the solar panels would be removed if a lease governing the project is not continued.
Tuesday’s hearing before the Planning Commission began retracing steps the panel has already taken. After holding a formal public comment hearing and several discussions and workshops that started a year ago, the nine-member commission recommended, with an 8-to-1 vote, that the ordinance changes with various restrictions be approved.
In October, the Jefferson County Commission, after conducting its own series of painstaking public discussions and hearings, adopted the current proposed ordinance. But two months later a citizens’ lawsuit prompted a 3-2 majority of county commissioners to rescind the ordinance.
Without explaining their action, the three county commissioners directed the Planning Commission to restart the formal public process to evaluate possibly allowing solar farm developments in the county.
A formal three-page agreement between the county commission and nine property owners near the Wild Hill Solar project off Kabletown Road to end the lawsuit involved repeating the public deliberations and hearings.
The settlement avoided a circuit court hearing scheduled for Tuesday to hear arguments the lawsuit raised. The settlement does not mention legal costs related to the lawsuit that the property owners wanted the county to pay.
Currently withdrawn, the lawsuit filed by nine property owners near the Wild Hill Solar project off Kabletown Road outlined several procedural steps the county commission and the Planning Commission followed on the way toward adopting the original ordinance change to allow for solar farms.
The lawsuit maintained that the Planning Commission failed to follow public notification procedures when it added a “residential growth” zoning category where solar farms would be permitted.
That all led to last week’s repeated public hearing and Tuesday’s special meeting.
“We’ve got a lot of new material that’s come in,” said Planning Commissioner Jack Hefestay after last Tuesday’s public comments.
Permitting solar farms in Jefferson County as a renewable energy initiative has been generally supported by residents who have offered comments over the past year.
Local farmers said such projects would allow them to diversify the agricultural incomes that will allow them to avoid selling their farmland to residential developers.
However, some residents have voiced suggestions for limiting solar farms to industrially zoned areas. Some have voiced concerns that proposed zoning setback or screening requirements to protect neighboring properties should be made more stringent.
Some homeowners have acknowledged that they don’t like the idea of fields of black panels spoiling their rural views over neighboring farmland.
A major recurring suggestion for improving the solar farm ordinance has been to replace the permitted-use review process with a conditional use approval process.
Hefestay and Planning Commission President Mike Shepp both said the additional public comments provided last week offer valuable suggestions to still consider.
Also, during Tuesday’s hearing, Jefferson County Commissioner Steve Stolipher, a voting member of the Planning Commission, announced that he wouldn’t participate in discussions and votes related to the solar farm ordinance.
Stolipher declined to comment on his decision.