JCC green lights solar farm projects

Solar panels outside a prison near Hagerstown, Maryland.

CHARLES TOWN – A full year ago Jefferson County planning officials began the public process to consider whether and, if so, how to allow large-scale solar energy generating operations as a restricted land-use activity within the county.

Without comment, the Jefferson County Commission—after conferring privately with an attorney—voted 3-2 in a specially called meeting last week to rescind its own Oct. 1 action—taken after a series of painstaking public discussions and hearings—to allow so-called industrial solar farms to operate in eight of the county’s 12 zoning districts.

The commission also directed the county planning commission, where a proposal to amend county zoning ordinances to allow solastart the public process over again to possibly allow solar farms in certain zoning districts.

A citizens’ lawsuit filed on Dec. 2 against the county commission in the matter prompted the reversal and an apparent do-over. But what legal issue the majority of commissioners conceded from the lawsuit wasn’t explained.

A formal three-page agreement between the commission and nine property owners 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.

Robert and Wanda Aitcheson, Zachary and Penny Curry, Christopher and Susan Burke, Aiman Jalil, Gavin Perry and Douglas Rockwell filed the lawsuit against the county commission. Several of the property owners have rural zoned land in the Kabletown area where a farm is being evaluated as a solar farm site.

Their joint lawsuit outlined several procedural steps the county commission and the planning commission followed on the way toward adopting a zoning ordinance amendment to allow solar farms. It states the county commission disregarded a request by the property owners to send a modified draft amendment back to the planning commission for a second formal review and action to issue a recommendation.

The lawsuit states the property owners maintained that another planning commission review was necessary because “there was no legal advertising of the addition of one of the County’s zoning districts to the districts in which solar farms would be permitted as of right.”

Instead, the county commission moved forward to adopt with a 3-2 vote a final ordinance change that added the “residential growth” district to the zoning categories where solar farms would be permitted.

Commissioners Jane Tabb, Patsy Noland and Ralph Lorenzetti voted to approve the settlement with the property owners. Commissioners Josh Compton and Caleb Hudson voted not to accept the agreement. No commissioner explained the agreement or their reason for their vote.

The now-defunct zoning ordinance amendment was set to take effect in November before the lawsuit challenge. The amendment had made solar farms a “by right” use in eight land-use categories that include rural, residential, commercial, office and industrial zones. The planning commission had the authority to approve and negotiate details within a general concept plan following public comments.

Some residents who spoke during a public hearing in September, however, wanted solar farm plans to undergo a more formal Condition Use Permit approval process before the county Board of Zoning Appeals. Under the process, the appeals board would have held public hearings and could impose certain requirements as conditions of solar farm project approvals, including requirements based on public comments.

To approve another amendment, including a potentially similar or even identical one, the planning commission would hold a public hearing before forwarding a recommended draft to the county commission, where another public hearing would be necessary before any final approval of a zoning ordinance change could be adopted.

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