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Solar panels are seen outside of the state prison near Hagerstown.

CHARLES TOWN – If industrial solar energy collection facilities are allowed in Jefferson County, such projects should require a case by case conditional approval of the county’s Board of Zoning Appeals after public input.

That was the hope of several of the 16 county residents who spoke during a public hearing the Jefferson County Commission held last week about a proposal to allow industrial solar energy collection facilities as a permitted land use.

As currently drafted, the proposed amendment to the county’s zoning code would permit solar farms — which generate solar energy to transfer into the local power grid — as a permitted commercial activity within eight commercial, industrial and residential zoning districts.

Those districts formally encompass rural, residential growth, residential-light industrial-commercial, general commercial, highway commercial, light industrial, major industrial and industrial commercial land zonings.

Allowing solar farms as a permitted use “by right” would require a review by the Jefferson County Planning Commission to ensure such projects conform to the county’s explicit zoning requirements.

Allowing solar farms as a more tightly regulated conditional use would give the Jefferson County Board of Zoning Appeals discretion to impose certain requirements for specific circumstances for individual projects. A conditional use would also require a public hearing before such projects are approved.

“The application to consider solar facilities came as a reasonable request as a conditional use, and that is how it should be,” Shepherdstown-area resident Anastasia (Stacy) Tabb said during the public hearing.

No citizen spoke out to oppose solar farms completely.

Industrial solar projects typically use between 500 and 900 acres of open land, according to solar industry experts who gave presentations to the county commission.

About 75 percent of the county’s current open land could technically be subject to development as solar farms under the current zoning proposal, according to county zoning officials. However, solar and electric utility officials have told county commissioners that viable sites for solar farms require flat terrain and nearby electrical utility infrastructure, technical requirements that would greatly limit the number of large-scale solar projects in the county.

At least one solar farm project is being considered in the Kabletown area.

Some farmers have asked to allow solar farm companies to temporarily lease their land, typically for as long as 30 years, to help their farms diversify their crop and agricultural income streams. That income diversification will help farmers avoid selling their rural land to residential developers, a step that would permanently reduce the county’s open agricultural land.

Some citizens have voiced concerns that numerous solar farms would replace crops and grazing cattle with large fields of black solar arrays that would mar the county’s open landscape.

Citizens have until Sept. 25 to submit written comments to the county commission on the proposed zoning.

County commissioners plan to discuss their several options on how to proceed this Thursday, including whether to hold a second informal workshop discussion.

The five-member panel can make changes to the proposed zoning amendment before adopting it, send the proposal back to the Planning Commission for more review or action, or decide not to allow solar farms at all.

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