CHARLES TOWN – Some view large-scale solar array projects as a sensible option to help preserve Jefferson County’s agricultural land. Others see fields of black panels replacing cattle and crops as blights on the county’s rural landscape.
Susan Hough of Charles Town, a member of a farming family, said allowing industrial solar installations to feed sun energy to the electrical grid would preserve agricultural land for farming into the future.
“This is a better option than turning our farmland into housing or other development,” Hough said during a public hearing June 2 before the Jefferson County Planning Commission.
David Fish said he and several of his Shepherdstown-area neighbors believe permitting banks of green-energy solar arrays to grow will mar the county’s rural setting. “Definitely not what our tourists would expect to see if they come to enjoy this area,” he said.
The Jefferson County Planning Commission, after holding a special workshop before this month’s public hearing, is set next Tuesday to further discuss and possibly advance a proposal that would allow such solar energy collection operations on rural properties.
After discussing the proposed draft “text amendment,” the Planning Commission could decide to withhold or advance a recommendation for final approval to the Jefferson County Commission. The county commission would hold a public hearing before voting on the proposal.
If adopted by the Jefferson County Commission as drafted, the proposed “text amendment” to the county’s zoning code would allow so-called solar farms on rural land by right, that’s without a required case-by-case review and approval by either the Planning Commission or the Board of Zoning Appeals.
However, the amendment would require such solar farm projects to submit concept plans that the Planning Commission would review and approve simply to ensure the projects comply with requirements in the zoning regulation, explained county Zoning Administrator Alex Beaulieu.
“The Planning Commission’s role would be to determine whether or not the concept plan met the criteria” outlined in the zoning amendment, Beaulieu said.
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.
Under the current zoning amendment draft, solar farms would be permitted by the county’s commercial, industrial and residential zoning districts. They would not be permitted in office mixed-use, residential or village zoning districts.
“Presently, under our current zoning ordinance, if this [zoning text amendment] were to process today, [solar farm projects] could process by right under commercial or industrial districts,” Beaulieu said. “So the reason that they’re still being reflected as a permitted use in these commercial and industrial districts is that we didn’t want to take away any of those existing [commercial and industrial] rights.”
As part of any recommendation, it might make to the County Commission, the Planning Commission must determine that proposed solar farms on rural land would be consistent with the county’s comprehensive development plan, Beaulieu said.
The county’s “Envision Jefferson 2035” comprehensive plan was adopted in 2015 to guide future zoning and land-use decisions. The comprehensive plan includes recommendations to encourage alternative renewable energy projects, such as solar, wind, biofuel and geothermal projects “to complement or replace existing power sources.”
A goal stated in the comprehensive plan is to “encourage the creation of and use of a variety of energy sources (including renewable energy) within Jefferson County in ways that respect the character of the County.” Page 93 of the plan, which was reviewed and updated after a two-year formal public hearing process, states that future zoning and land-use decisions should “enable the construction of renewable energy generation facilities by residents and businesses.”
County farmers would most likely partner with solar energy development firms to install and operate industrial solar arrays on their properties.
Sam Gulland, a development manager with Torch Clean Energy, worked with a subcommittee last winter to help develop the proposed text amendment. During a commission meeting in December, he submitted a three-page draft that the commission’s subcommittee used as a starting point.
Gulland said then that several Jefferson County farms have open land located next to electrical transmission lines and substations that present the best options for solar farms. He said several farmers in the county are willing to lease part of their land for commercial solar projects as a diversified source of income that will allow them to continue to operate as farmers.
Torch Clean Energy is working with or has worked with solar farm projects in Virginia and Maryland. Often those projects help companies in various industries meet their own sustainable energy goals, he said.
During a June 2 public hearing, the Planning Commission received comments in favor and against the permitted use of solar farm projects on rural zoned land. The commission also received some suggestions for improving the text amendment draft.
Doug Rockwell of Charles Town suggested that the commission strengthen the draft’s decommissioning requirements. He pointed to county regulations for cellular transmission towers that require the companies erecting towers to establish long-term “maintenance and removal” bonds to ensure money will be available if such owners need to be taken down in the future.
“The property owner or owners should provide financial assurance for the performance of the decommissioning plan,” he said.
Among other suggestions, Rockwell also said decommission plans for solar farms should be reviewed and approved by a county engineer before concept plans are reviewed by a zoning administrator or the Planning Commission.
Rockwell was most adamant that state law would require any zoning allowance for solar farms to be provided as a conditional use—rather than the more automatic permitted use as drafted. A conditional use would give the Jefferson County Board of Zoning Appeals discretion to impose certain requirements for specific circumstances for individual projects.
County assistant attorney Nathan Cockran said he would review the legal issues involved with Rockwell’s suggestions.
Rockwell also joined Joy Rawn, a member of a Jefferson County farm family, to ask that Planning Commissioner Steve Stolipher, a Charles Town-area farmer and a commercial real estate agent, to refrain from participating in any discussion or decision related to solar farms amendment.
Rockwell, at the public hearing, and Rawn, in a comment letter, agreed that Stolipher’s professional career as a commercial real estate agent positions him to potentially benefit financially from the zoning amendment.
After the public hearing, however, Stolipher, said he obtained an opinion from the West Virginia Ethics Commission that assures he can participate in the issue without a personal conflict of interest.
County Commissioner Ralph Lorenzetti, a member of the Planning Commission, said after the public hearing that he would oppose the solar farm proposal, but he added that he would wait for the June 23 discussion to explain his reasons. “I think this is going to be a topic where a lot of people in the county will want to have a lot of input into,” he said.