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After two and a half years of dedicated hours by citizen volunteers and Jefferson County Planning Commission staff as well as considerable public input, the Envision Jefferson 2035 Comprehensive Plan was adopted on Jan. 14, 2015. The plan develops “strategies that establish as clearly and practically as possible the best and most appropriate future development” in the county. The plan aids in the design of zoning ordinances that results in “preserving and enhancing the unique quality of life and culture” in the county. 

By law, any amendment to a zoning ordinance must be in compliance with the comprehensive plan. The plan must be reviewed every 10 years and, if necessary, updated and may be amended at any time. 

The comprehensive plan establishes zoning districts and overlays on these districts, growth boundaries and areas around Charles Town and Shepherdstown. Solar, as an alternative energy, is recognized and allowed as a permitted use inside of the growth boundaries. Commercial development is allowed in the rural district outside of the growth boundary as a conditional use. A solar energy facility is a commercial activity. Thus the comprehensive plan would allow a solar facility as a permitted or conditional use depending on location. 

Jefferson County is in the process of amending the plan to allow such facilities as permitted any where in the county. 

The comprehensive plan is a policy statement and to enforce these policies a zoning ordinance is required. Jefferson County has had a zoning ordinance since 1988. Article 1 of the existing zoning ordinance contains the purposes or goals including: protection of the health, safety and general welfare of the present and future population; ensure that development is both economically and environmentally sound; maintain an agricultural base to ensure the continued viability of farming; improve the appearance of the county with relationship to the use and development of land; support commercial, industrial and agricultural activities while maintaining land use, order and compatibility; and encourage the conservation of natural resources and historic preservation. 

In support of these purposes, the zoning ordinance, for commercial activities, establishes setbacks from dwellings, schools, churches, historic structures and designated historic districts; landscaping, screening and buffer yard requirements; buffer strips along the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers; and standards for noise, dust, air quality, vibration, glare and heat; and toxic matter and fire hazards. Because each parcel of land is different, all of the above standards may not be necessary; variances may be granted. 

Twice the Jefferson County Commission has attempted a solar facility text amendment to the zoning ordinance. The first amendment was withdrawn by the commission after it was informed of a defect. The second amendment was set aside by a court order because the commission could not prove the amendment was in compliance with the comprehensive plan as required by law. The commission has elected to amend the comprehensive plan instead of correcting the rejected solar facility text amendment. 

Now comes the developers, from France, Spain and California, who want to be exempt from zoning for their solar generating facilities. According to a report prepared for the developer of Wild Hill Solar, these projects require 500 to 1,000 acres each and the solar panels, when installed, will reach a height of 13 feet (height of a tractor-trailer). The panels will be mounted on poles driven into the ground. 

What about the karst topography? Some solar cells contain carcinogens. Who will ban their use?

 Two projects have been announced and, according to The Spirit of Jefferson, eight more may be on the drawing board. How much farmland should be lost to this idea? 

Jefferson County should make these decisions not Charleston! Who is more qualified to manage the growth of this county than its citizens? Through fair and reasonable regulations, in a zoning ordinance, solar facilities will locate in the county. 

This county is the eastern gateway to West Virginia with great views, natural beauty and historical lands. The citizens have supported and adopted a comprehensive plan and zoning that reflects our values and goals for the future of this county. Why would you support a bill, drafted for solar developers and promoted by a financially interested county commissioner, exempting solar generating facilities from local zoning?!

(1) comment

Star

Doug, thanks for your article. Solar farm development in Jefferson County does not make practical sense in my opinion and must be studied and open to community conversation. Most articles on this subject suggest sites where land has been already destroyed by development/industry are most viable candidates for industrial solar, not agricultural land that will have numerous negative impact factors to be considered. Local zoning and community hearings SHOULD be involved with any plans for solar in Jefferson County.

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