Madison County just became more restrictive for the installation of commercial solar energy facilities.

Last week, Madison County Supervisors approved several amendments to the comprehensive plan and zoning ordinance, including adding articles dealing with commercial solar energy facilities. Created over a nearly year and a half long process, the articles set forth regulations for the facilities with the idea being to regulate the establishment and operation of them within the county. The issue is a hot one in terms of current events with solar facilities proposed in Orange, Culpeper and Spotsylvania as well as numerous other locations throughout the state.

The articles contained in the newly approved zoning ordinance amendment allow commercial solar energy facilities by special use permit only on property zoned M-1, of which there is very little in the county thus likely forcing a rezoning application in addition to the special use permit. According to director of economic development and tourism Tracey Gardner, the largest piece of M-1 zoned property currently in the county is 20 acres.

The articles also require a feasibility study to ensure the amount of generated power could be supported by the electric grid and relevant electric company as well as a cost/benefit analysis describing the increase in tax revenues, local construction dollars, permanent jobs and costs on roads and other infrastructure. A view shed analysis would also be required from the perspectives of neighboring landowners and roadways. Power generated can only be for commercial uses and must be less than 50 percent of the annual total power usage of all county users. The applicant would also have to bear all costs for any increased staff time and attentions related to the project by county employees and submit a decommissioning plan meeting requirements set forth in the ordinance amendment.

The articles also set forth conditions for location of such facilities, setbacks, safety and access and landscaping/appearance requirements.

However, the articles weren’t added without conversation. Laura Rogers, a member of the Culpeper County Planning Commission which is currently dealing with the establishment of a commercial solar facility in the county, agreed with provisions in the articles requiring a feasibility study, economic cost/benefit analysis, a view shed analysis and decommissioning plan prior to the issuance of a special use permit. She said it’s very important to get the documents before the application so that all the information is on-hand when making a decision.

However, planning commissioner Pete Elliott disagreed with the cost/benefit analysis, which as first proposed, would require construction payroll information. He stated that it would remove any negotiating leverage the potential company would have when hiring employees.

“How is that fair to anyone?,” he asked.

Elliott also noted that requirements of a 40 foot buffer and a 15 foot maximum height for solar panels contradict each other. He also took issue with not allowing concrete to be used to secure pylons, as well as a regulation requiring that topsoil removed from the area when grading be saved and put back.

“In my opinion, this ordinance needs some work,” he said.

Madison resident Bill Sanford agreed with the buffer being contradictory.

“It seems somewhat counterproductive if you’re using a solar array to have a 40 foot view block,” he said, noting that the buffer could block the sunlight.

Planning commission chairman Carty Yowell said the setback, which is 300 feet, would likely prevent any shadowing from occurring.

Planning commissioner Fay Utz, who chaired the committee on solar facilities, noted that the group, which consisted of herself and commissioners Mike Mosko and Mike Fisher, spent months meeting with others going through the process of having commercial solar facilities in their counties. She said they also looked at numerous ordinances and that a majority of things listed in the Madison County ordinance were issues others had brought up and things they wish they had done differently or had in their county’s own ordinances.

Fisher said the provision regarding that everything be done “at no cost to the county” was very important as other counties have spent thousands of taxpayer dollars going through the process of evaluating commercial solar energy projects.

“I agree with some of Pete [Elliott’s] comments, but if we don’t do something, this stuff changes like the wind,” Fisher said. “We need to put something on the books. It’s not perfect, but it can prevent trouble.”

Citizens for Responsible Solar (CRS), a grassroots group of concerned citizens organized to promote responsible solar and other forms of renewable energy, submitted a letter in support of the zoning amendment. The group is against the approval and development of large scale solar projects which it states results in the destruction of habitat and farmland.

Also submitting a letter was David Murray, executive director of the Maryland-DC-Delaware-Virginia Solar Energy Industries Association. In the letter, Murray took issue with the CRS letter, opting to “dispel” the myths and noting that the amendment would deprive county residents from the benefits of solar energy.

“Restricting solar development to industrial land effectively zones out future projects, foreclosing Madison County from the economic opportunities created by solar projects,” he said.

Murray stated that claims made by CRS that solar projects harm property values has been dispelled in several studies. He said solar projects generate valuable tax revenue while being good neighbors, requiring no infrastructure like water and sewer lines and after construction, emit no air or water pollution and little noise and light pollution. He also said projects have low impacts to land arability, especially when compared to residential and industrial development. Murray said CRS intends to zone out solar development beyond Madison County which is in contrast to state energy goals. In 2018, the General Assembly declared 5,000MW of solar and wind to be in the public interest.

Mosko recommended the amendment for approval to the board of supervisors. Utz seconded the motion which was then approved 7-1 with Elliott dissenting. Planning commissioner Francoise Seillier-Moiseiwitsch was absent.

Board of supervisors chairman Clay Jackson agreed that Elliott had made valid points, asking for the rationale behind preventing the use of concrete. Utz stated it had to do with decommissioning and that the concrete is not always moved back enough. Mosko pointed out that pile driving equipment could be used, but has to be monitored within 600 feet of a structure since it can sometimes damage buildings.

Jackson suggested pulling out the concrete restriction, as well as the requirement that a potential company provide its payroll numbers.

“It’s not our businesses what they pay their workers,” he said.

Yowell stated that the payroll numbers would be estimates and give an overall idea of the economic impact of a project. Fisher and Utz agreed.

Supervisor Jonathon Weakley said he had no issues with the other requirements regarding economic information, but said taking out the payroll one doesn’t impact those.

Rogers agreed with removing the payroll requirement, noting that in many cases the companies overseeing the projects hire out the work to third-party contractors and are thus unable to provide payroll information because they don’t have it.

The supervisors approved the amendment 5-0.

They also approved an amendment to goal five in the comprehensive plan, removing the encouragement of the “development of appropriate solar energy facilities and other renewable energy technologies,” an adding the word “transmission” between “electric” and “utilities” and the words “electric transmission” before “utility facilities.” The term “public service corporation” was also removed from three places in the zoning ordinance. These changes were all recommended by the planning commission after public hearings in which no one spoke and approved unanimously by supervisors.

Also approved was adding the definition for airport or heliport to special use permit allowances on conservation zoned land. The use was already allowed by special permit in agricultural zoned areas. Initially, the commission had proposed a change to the language of the use, but decided against it after a public hearing in which several speakers thought it to be too restrictive. The addition was approved unanimously.

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