As we predicted back in 2019, the year 2020 saw a rising tide of utility-scale solar projects proposed in the Valley. Thankfully, most of our local governments took time to re-examine or create ordinances so they had the tools available to evaluate special use permits for solar projects and find the best-fit projects for their communities.
Here’s a roundup of what happened:
In early 2020 the Augusta County Board of Supervisors appointed a citizen solar committee to recommend language to be added to the county’s Comprehensive Plan regarding solar energy. Because of the relative newness of solar energy, there was no existing language in the county’s comp plan. In August of 2020, the county adopted comp plan language regarding solar energy, both distributed and utility scale, and added it to the plan. Late in 2020 the county adopted a revised solar ordinance as well. The language for that was developed by county staff and members of the Board of Supervisors and Planning Commission.
The new ordinance addresses only solar arrays on land in which the array is the primary use. Solar arrays of any size that are for a residence or business are allowed by right with the only regulation being the standard setbacks that come with the building of any structure. Projects that are not by right and are thus regulated by the ordinance are now divided into two categories: those 50 acres or less and those above 50 acres. The smaller projects must apply for a special use permit with the Board of Zoning Appeals. Those above 50 acres require a special use permit issued by the Board of Supervisors and are not allowed in industrial zoned districts. In addition, large projects must hold a community meeting and provide an economic benefits analysis report.
Our Augusta County Coordinator, Nancy Sorrells, served on the solar committee that worked on the comp plan language and has been fully involved in solar issues for the county. As 2021 begins, the county is considering an application from Strata Solar on 11 tracts of land owned by two Augusta County families for an 880-acre utility-scale solar project (560 acres will be pods of solar arrays and over 300 acres will be in vegetative buffers) between Stuarts Draft and Mint Spring.
Frederick County voted to approve two large utility-scale solar projects in 2020. The first is west of Stephens City and includes 370 acres of panels. The Frederick County Board of Supervisors voted to approve the conditional use permit for the project in July. The second project is located south of Stephens City and includes 705 acres of panels. The Board of Supervisors voted to approve the conditional use permit for this project in September. Both projects are slated to begin construction in 2021.
Page County engaged fully in their effort to enact a new ordinance for solar projects. Through work with the Berkeley Group, the Page County Planning Commission constructed a high-quality Solar Energy Ordinance. Unfortunately, the Board of Supervisors opted to delay approval of the new ordinance and rather formed a committee to reexamine the ordinance.
Our Page & Warren County Coordinator Chris Anderson engaged with the drafting process, working with local planning officials, participating in public comments, and communicating regularly with Page County residents. Chris also played a central role for Page County citizens in ensuring that the adoption of this new ordinance was completed in a transparent process by recording Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors meetings that many were unable to attend due to pandemic restrictions. All those recordings are available here.
In Warren County, we watched for details about a potential 75-125 acre solar development in the Town of Front Royal, but as of this writing, no permit application is publicly available.
In 2020, the Rockingham Board of Supervisors considered a proposed 355 acre project near Endless Caverns in northern Rockingham. The proposal was tabled at a Board of Supervisors meeting in September, and then briefly brought back up for discussion in late October. In order to make an informed decision on the proposed project the Rockingham Board of Supervisors decided to begin a process to update the Solar energy ordinance and created a solar advisory committee to help draft an updated ordinance. The Alliance’s Rockingham County Coordinator, Kim Sandum, was appointed to this new committee in November.
In addition to Kim’s appointment, Alliance staff worked directly with county staff regarding utility-scale solar in Rockingham and provided public comments to the Board of Supervisors regarding the proposed Endless Caverns project. As the Solar Advisory committee completes its work in the coming months, we will continue to keep the Rockingham County community informed.
In Shenandoah County, construction on the first utility-scale solar project in the Alliance’s service area began near Mt. Jackson. This first phase of construction was originally approved by the Mt. Jackson Town Council in 2017.
The Alliance was happy to see Shenandoah County prepare and embrace smaller-scale solar projects like community solar and rooftop solar. In October 2020, Shenandoah County voted to approve a community-scale solar project of about 30 acres near Woodstock. The Shenandoah Valley Electrical Cooperative plans to sign up over 500 county residents as the purchasers of the solar electricity, though the project will connect to the grid. Shenandoah County planning staff also worked to make additions to the county’s existing solar ordinance to ease the installation of small-scale solar projects on individual properties.