Next Steps: Cumberland County considers future of solar policy

Published 1:00 am Wednesday, May 22, 2024

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Back in February, Cumberland County supervisors made a decision. They pressed pause on any new solar applications, of which they were getting several. The reason, as they explained at the time, is currently the county doesn’t have a full solar policy. That is, there’s no specifics defining what is or isn’t allowed. In neighboring counties like Prince Edward and Buckingham, solar companies and county planning department staff have both said having a clear policy makes things much easier. The companies understand what they’re required to do, in order to move forward with a project and the county staff know what they need to look for in an application.

Now that pause doesn’t last forever. In fact, it only runs for a couple more months, wrapping up in August. By then, unless something changes, the suspension on new solar applications in Cumberland would be lifted. County staff hope to have a policy up for consideration much sooner than that.

During their May 16 meeting, Cumberland supervisors heard from County Administrator Derek Stamey, who gave an update on the project.

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“You essentially gave yourselves a six-month window to (finish the policy) and as of today, staff have been working through four or five different (versions),” Stamey said.

He told supervisors the plan was to have a rough draft of the solar policy ready by June. They could schedule a work session, go over what supervisors liked and what they want changed. Then staff would make revisions and prepare a final version.

“Right now, if the stars align, we can bring that (final version) before the board in July, a month ahead of schedule,” Stamey said.

Cumberland County looks ahead

Solar is one option during budget discussions that supervisors talked about as a way to generate new revenue. The problem right now for Cumberland is that 56% of general fund revenue comes from property taxes, including real estate. Recoveries make up another 16% and the third highest money source is state revenue at 9%.

Combined, those three sources make up 81% of the county’s general fund revenue. It was pointed out at the time by Stamey the county is heavily dependent on taxes. If anything were to change with the economy, if more people moved away, that could seriously impact Cumberland’s budget.

It also means that Cumberland has been forced to remain at the higher end of tax rates, since that carries so much of the budget. As mentioned, one potential positive for the upcoming fiscal year comes from solar. The county expects to bring in an estimated $1.363 million in fees and taxes from the handful of solar projects that have been approved and are moving forward.

But before considering any more projects, supervisors wanted a clear policy, one that addresses some of the concerns from residents. Before applications were suspended, several solar public hearings drew a crowd. Residents were concerned about potential toxins leaking from facilities into the water, loud noises from the solar farm, damage to roads during construction and potential for increased flooding, to name a few.