The Culpeper County Planning Commission recently reached a unanimous consensus that a new zoning district should not be created for solar utility projects. Moving forward, the commission will continue discussing a solar utility ordinance.
Culpeper is a prime location for solar panel projects due to the presence of a Dominion Power transmission line that can handle the distribution of solar energy. Additionally, an abundance flat land near the line makes for suitable construction sites.
The county currently has a land-use policy regarding solar projects, which provides guidelines that are not codified into law as they would be in an ordinance.
During a recent work session, Planning Director Sam McLearen presented a draft solar ordinance with provisions including:
- That developers receive a conditional use permit to construct solar projects, which is currently the case.
- No minimum or maximum lot sizes compared to the current 300-acre maximum outlined in the policy.
- Solar panels could cover 50% of lots on which they are constructed.
- That solar panels be 150 feet away from streets, a guideline in the county’s current policy.
- That solar farms be 200 feet away from land zoned as residential, rural area or agricultural.
- Decommissioning requirements mandating the removal of all surface and subsurface features.
- A required decommissioning surety that is acceptable to the county before building permits are issued.
- That decommissioning cost estimates be conducted every three years.
- That a viewshed, historic impact, natural resource inventory and floodplain analysis be considered during the conditional use permit application process.
- That blasting be prohibited during construction unless a geotechnical permit is submitted with the conditional use permit application stating where the limited blasting will occur.
Recommendations made by the planning commission are forwarded to the board of supervisors for an ultimate decision.
Revising the policy or creating an ordinance?
Instead of adopting an ordinance, Commissioner Doug Grover suggested that the county instead “ramp up” its policy while still requiring a conditional use permit for solar projects.
“I think that way you gain a little bit more control and have options. You know, rather than telling them what they need to do, you can sit back and say ‘well tell me what you wanna do’ and I’ll let you know if we think it’s a good idea or not,” Grover said.
Commissioner Nate Clancy noted that there will be different circumstances for each proposed solar project and the county should individually review each site. Commissioner Cindy Thornhill agreed, saying a blanket ordinance would cause issues. She added that requiring a conditional use permit while having an ordinance could create a confusing process.
“We have to make a judgment call and we want to do it based on facts and data. We want it to have a set of parameters we know we can use and then there is that, I guess gray area, and we’re creating more and more gray area,” Thornhill said.
County Attorney Bobbi Jo Alexis explained that an ordinance would not leave room for negotiations as it would become law. In addition to having an ordinance, she said the county could have a non-legally binding policy for matters that should be considered on a case-by-case basis. From a planning perspective, the commission’s Chairman Sanford Reaves said it would be ideal to have all requirements in one place rather than having a policy and an ordinance. Alexis noted that about 99% of guidelines could be captured in an ordinance while a policy would be good for items such as panel composition and size, which are subject to change with rapidly developing technology. She explained amending a policy would be easier than changing an ordinance, which would be useful with the constantly evolving technology.
Commissioner Laura Rogers said an ordinance would be beneficial in preventing the county from playing “lets make a deal.”
“I think we need things in here that lets the people know when they come here there are certain things we are looking for…I think we need to start being a little bit firmer,” she said.
Commissioner Katie Reames suggested placing a cap on the total countywide acreage that can be used for solar development. Alexis explained that the county could only establish a desired “target” acreage, but it would be illegal to establish a limit. That begs the question, Reames noted, of how the county could deny a solar application if it meets all of the requirements established by an ordinance.
A brief look at Culpeper’s solar history
- October 2017: The Culpeper County Board of Supervisors adopted an ordinance amendment stating that utility facilities including renewable energy could be allowed in agricultural and rural area zoning districts if the projects are granted conditional use permits.
- April 2018: The county adopted its first utility scale solar development policy outlining application guidelines such as decommissioning provisions, setbacks and buffers.
- October 2018: The supervisors approved a special use permit for a 100-megawatt project spanning 1,000 acres off Blackjack Road. As the developers did not submit a site plan in time, this project will return before the planning commission.
- October 2019: The county amended its policy to include a maximum 300-acre project limit.
- August 2020: The county began working on a new ordinance and zoning district that would regulate solar power utility projects.
- March 2020: For a second time in four months, the planning commission recommended that the supervisors deny Maroon Solar’s proposed 49-megawatt solar panel project on 1,700 acres between Racoon Ford and Mount Pony roads. The supervisors have not yet voted on the project.
The planning commission will hold another meeting in April surrounding a potential solar field ordinance.