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Managing solar facilities

At the September Board of Supervisors meeting, Prince Edward County staff was directed to research and develop an amendment to the county zoning ordinance that would place controls and/or limits on solar and wind generation facilities.

Wade Bartlett

County Administrator Wade Bartlett introduced the topic during the meeting.

“The Planning Commission met on Aug. 20, and they held a public hearing for a special use permit application to allow a solar generation facility to be built on Piney Grove Road, which is in the Lockett District, I believe,” he said. “The staff research into such facilities found they may not be as benign as normally thought.

“Some of the concerns were, one, are toxic materials used in the solar panels, brackets, glues or finishes of the panels; two, the hazards associated with the large, lithium-ion batteries placed on-site to include hazardous materials and the possibility of what’s called thermal runaway;” he continued, “three, the microclimate impact of the creation of heat islands; four, impact on property values and lack of a decommissioning plan; and finally, five, due to the sheer size and longevity of these facilities, the impact they may have on the county’s land-use program.

“Because of these questions, not all of which were answered by any means — almost none were answered — but because of that lack of answers and the lack of a county policy regarding solar and/or wind generation facilities, the Planning Commission tabled the special use (permit) request and recommends the Board of Supervisors consider creating a committee to study such facilities and amend the zoning ordinance to create a section in that ordinance concerning solar and/or wind generation facilities,” Bartlett said.

He noted that the staff recommendation was to either create a committee or direct county staff to develop an amendment to the county’s own ordinance to place controls and/or limits on solar and wind generation facilities.

Farmville 701 District Supervisor and Board Chairman Jim Wilck said, “I think I’d prefer that the county staff do it, because they have more information on it.”

Bartlett said, “And of course, once that’s done, it will go back to the Planning Commission for them to review and whatnot, and then they would have a vote on that, and of course, have a public hearing because we’re changing an ordinance, and then it would come before the county Board of Supervisors.”

Clarifying county staff’s position on the solar and wind generation operations, Bartlett said, “We’re not necessarily saying we’re against (them), but there have been a lot of questions raised since we see a proliferation of these facilities. And this one is rather small — it’s only 20 acres. But we issued one special use permit for one that was several hundred acres; not a thing has been done on that.”

A draft excerpt of the board meeting minutes noted that Bartlett said if this second facility is approved, a precedent would be set.

Leigh District Supervisor and Board Vice Chairman Jerry R. Townsend inquired about the first facility where no activity has occurred, and then Prospect Supervisor J. David Emert joined in.

“Does it have a sunset law?” Emert asked, referring to the first facility’s special use permit.

“No,” Bartlett said. “That’s another thing that we talked about that we would look at is set a time limit for any special use permits. We have it for building permits; there’s a limit for that.”

Lockett District Supervisor Robert M. “Bobby” Jones stated that the development of solar and wind generation facilities is becoming quite popular.

“I know in Campbell County, there’s several large, proposed facilities like this,” he said. “But anyhow, it’s something (for which) I think we do need an ordinance. Probably before we passed the first one we should have maybe (created an ordinance) — not probably, definitely we should have — because we want to make sure we can handle a situation if there is a problem with it. And also … a lot of these companies want to lease the land, and then if they walk away from it, then leave a lot of materials that have to be disposed of, we need to have some type of ordinance, no doubt.”

Townsend mentioned the need to consider a time window on special use permits, and Bartlett indicated it would be addressed.

“Special use permits run with the land, not the owner, so we can look at that,” he said.

Concluding the matter during the meeting, Bartlett said, “I will talk to some solar developers to get their input on this also, because there is a plethora of information that you can gather on research just in a short period of time. It was almost overwhelming how much information was out there that I could find.”