JCC green lights solar farm projects

Solar panels outside a prison near Hagerstown, Maryland.

CHARLES TOWN — After three public workshops and a public hearing, the Jefferson County Commission approved a proposed zoning ordinance change to allow industrial solar-energy-generating facilities in the county.

The commission voted 3-2 to approve the zoning “text amendment” proposal as submitted by the county planning commission, except for one change.

Upon a recommendation from Commissioner Patsy Noland, the county commission agreed to double a required property-line setback from 100 feet to 200 feet for so-called solar farm installations. Solar arrays or equipment cannot be placed closer than 200 feet to any property line.

As was included in the suggested proposal, solar farms will have to provide a 20-foot opaque fence or “vegetative” screen of plantings between solar equipment located within 200 feet of any existing residence.  

The zoning change takes effect on Nov. 22.

The zoning ordinance change addresses construction standards such as the placement, design and construction of large-scale solar projects that would harvest the sun to generate electricity fed back into the local electrical power grid for profit.

The final measure that was adopted makes solar farms as a “by right” permitted use in eight land-use categories that include rural, residential, commercial, office and industrial zones.

Designating solar farm projects as a permitted use will set in motion a process where any such future project proposals would be reviewed by the planning commission. The planning commission will have the authority to approve and negotiate details within a general concept plan after public comments are made during an informal workshop, county officials said.

Some residents who spoke during a Sept. 11 public hearing wanted solar farm plans to undergo a more formal Condition Use Permit approval process before the county Board of Zoning Appeals. Under that 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.

After commissioners sought clarification on the differences between the conditional use and permitted use approval processes, Noland said it was important that the public will continue to have a voice in influencing proposed solar farm projects in the concept plan approval process.  “I think it’s really important for people to understand that,” she said. “This can be so complicated, and I just wanted to be sure that information was out there.”

However, Tabb said her understanding was that the Board of Zoning Appeals would have more explicit authority and latitude through a conditional use review to compel reasonable changes to solar farm plans than the planning commission would.

County Zoning Administrator Alex Beaulieu didn’t disagree. She agreed that if a conditional use provision was included in the finl zoning ordinance change, the commision should retain specific rules, such as setback requirements, to guide the Board of Zoning Appeals in making decisions in shaping solar farm projects.

Noland pointed out that the final ordinance would have to be thorough for the conditional use process to be effective, a point that county staff agreed.

She joined county commissioners Josh Compton and Caleb Hudson in voting for the final measure that was adopted. Commissioners Jane Tabb and Ralph Lorenzetti voted against the final measure.

All of the county commissioners said they supported solar energy projects. They also agreed (although Hudson contributed hardly any comments throughout the commission’s various discussions) that the details of how to allow them would be critical in determining whether solar farms might create major long-term problems or eyesores.

“No matter which way we go,” Noland said, “we’re going to have to get this right, because I don’t want this to become a disaster.”

A few local farmers have supported the proposal, including a Kabletown farm family who applied for the zoning text change as part of a project the family was considering. Some farmers have said solar farms can help them diversify and stabilize their roller-coaster agricultural revenues. More reliable income will help farmers preserve their farms and could avoid more farmland from being permanently developed into housing subdivisions.

A relatively new but expanding industry, solar generating companies typically lease farmland for as long as 30 years, two industry representatives have told the commission.

After asking several detailed questions, Tabb, whose family operates a farm, expressed her reluctance to vote for a final measure that would rely on concept plan approvals. “You can adjust, I think, more easily to the location, … we could require the developers to do a little more.”

Tabb also said she wouldn’t vote for a final measure that allowed solar farms on land zoned as “rural residential growth” areas. Her research, she said, found that a Virginia municipality was nearly surrounded by solar farms after allowing solar farms in similarly designated land-use zones.

“They ended up almost encircling the town [with solar farms] and taking up almost all the residential growth area,” she said.

 Tabb worried how companies might invest more money to “link up” solar farm projects on adjacent properties.

“It’s a sizable amount of land that could be impacted,” she said. “I implore my fellow commissioners to advance through this in any shape or form in a very cautious manner. It looks like in the past many jurisdictions have learned from their mistakes, and I want to be as cautious as possible but still allow solar facilities under the conditional use permit.”

About 75 percent of the county’s current open land could technically be subject to development as solar farms under the zoning ordinance, according to county zoning officials. However, solar-generating company representatives have told the commissioners that viable solar-farm sites need to be within a half-mile of electrical utility substations or power lines to be cost-effective.

Such projects need about 500 to 800 acres to be cost-effective, solar company officials said. 

Compton, a consultant for rural electric cooperatives, said he has seen solar farms in other counties during his business travels across the country. He said he hasn’t seen a widespread problem with industrial solar developments.

While agreeing with Tabb that the commission should “tread lightly” in how it allows solar farms, Compton also said other requirements, such as the necessary slope of sites, will most likely eliminate large areas from being viable for these solar projects. He said he would like to see a map of the county that would include slopes and other information to more accurately assess where solar farms might be cost-effective and where they wouldn’t be.

“There have been instances [when] there’s been a problem,” he said. “The large majority I have seen there is not that problem … .”

Compton also said the ability of local electrical power lines to absorb extra electricity from solar-generating facilities is likely limited. “We heard from engineers and we don’t know for sure how much excess capacity is on those transmission lines, but I’m just going to guess that there’s no possible way you could build solar farms along that entire stretch of transmission line [in the county] and have available capacity on that line. It’s just not going to happen.”

Tabb pointed out the prime farmland is relatively flat. “We don’t know whether there will be land disturbance or not that could make some of those hills [on currently open county land] rather flat,” she said. “It’s not going to go everywhere or be economical [everywhere in the county], but it does encompass a lot of territory. … I just want everyone to see the possibilities.”

Commissioner Ralph Lorenzetti said he wanted to figure out a way for such projects to supplement farm incomes while retaining the primary agricultural use of such open tracts of land. However, commissioners and county zoning officials agreed that devising an appropriate, fair and workable formula to proportionally limit the scale of solar farms on specific properties would be difficult to do.

Lorenzetti also said he was uncertain, at this point, whether the county’s rules to decommission solar projects in the future will prove to be adequate years from now. Some counties in North Carolina have found their decommissioning rules inadequate when solar farms have reached the end of their commercial lifespan, he said.

The county attorney is working to develop those supplemental decommission rules before the new zoning permitting solar farms takes effect.

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