‘We ought to get something in place’
As of last week, Rappahannock has a new ordinance on the books to control utility-scale renewable energy generating facilities, including wind and solar projects, on county land. After a late-night joint session with the Planning Commission on July 7, the Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 to pass the ordinance, with Piedmont Supervisor Christine Smith and Hampton Supervisor Keir Whitson dissenting.
The ordinance as written allows landowners to install solar arrays by right on their own homes and properties for the purpose of providing energy on-site or to an adjacent property, but places strict limitations on utility-scale solar projects providing electricity to the power grid. A solar project “must be contained within a 100-acre contiguous area,” and that “in no case shall the parcel size be less than 500 acres.” Utility-scale solar also cannot be located on prime farmland or be within 500 feet of a lot line or road. Other requirements regarding the impact of the solar array to the visual character of the county, environmental considerations, signage, site plans and decommissioning are also addressed in the new language.
Both commission and board hurried the ordinance along with uncharacteristic urgency. At a Planning Commission meeting on June 30, planners invited an expert to make recommendations for tailoring the draft ordinance to Rappahannock’s unique setting. In the end, however, no changes were made — the Board of Supervisors had already advertised the July 7 public hearing on the ordinance in this newspaper on June 24, which meant that the drafted language could not be amended prior to the hearing or else the supervisors would be forced to reschedule. Then, at the hearing last week, county supervisors voted to adopt the ordinance within an hour of receiving the planning commission’s formal recommendation to approve it — against the advice of County Attorney Art Goff.
The reason for the rush? Prior to this draft, the county code contained no specific ordinance restricting utility-scale renewable energy projects. As a result, county officials feared that it might be a matter of time before Rappahannock encountered an undesirable proposition.
During the hearing, Jackson Supervisor Ron Frazier mentioned that a proposal had, indeed, come too close for comfort. “I’ve had a phone call with an individual [from] across the pond,” Frazier said, alluding to a solar company representative who was eyeing property on Battle Mountain between Amissville and Castleton. “It’s not that difficult to put an application in, they’ve already got the paperwork all they’ve got to do is get an address,” Frazier said.
While each of the planners expressed some level of dissatisfaction with the ordinance, Hampton Planner Al Henry was the most vocal opponent, arguing that the ordinance could be challenged as being “exclusionary.”
“I think what we should maybe be looking at is a minimum lot size of 100 acres, no more than 50 percent of the site can be used for production of electricity,” Henry said. “When you look at the fact that 20 percent of the county is in the [Shenandoah National] Park, 20 percent is under scenic easement … and we limit [energy production] to [agricultural] areas of no more than 100 acres in size, I think we’ve boxed it down to where it’s a limited number of places but it’s still feasible for people to come up with some properties here and there.”
“I would suggest that we pass this tonight,” said Piedmont Planner Mary Katherine Ishee. “We ought to get something in place, move forward and then take the time to do this thoughtfully, look at what experts are recommending. … These solar developers aren’t going away.”
“I’ve never seen government do this before, where they approve an ordinance … and they do it with the full intent of backing up on it later,” Henry said. “It’s just odd that we’re doing this.”
“The legislative process is sausage making and a lot of times things are passed that nobody likes … and I feel like that’s maybe what we’re doing tonight,” Ishee said.
“I don’t disagree with Mr. Henry but I also have heard, as a member of the Board of Supervisors, from my colleagues that there is some urgency to place some ordinance on the books as quickly as possible,” Whitson said.
“If we found a way to avoid [solar fields] altogether in this county, I would be happy,” Parrish said. “Apparently we can’t just say no … we could just make it so restrictive that nobody is going to apply for it.”
But Smith said it concerned her that this ordinance could be construed as prohibitive. “Do we know clearly where this [ordinance] will allow this to happen based on the way it’s drawn up now? Because we heard two words tonight that set off alarm bells to me which are ‘moratorium’ and ‘exclusionary,’” she said. “If we’re making a moratorium, or we are making [this ordinance] exclusionary, we are making it worse.”
“There’s no doubt it is restrictive,” Whitson responded.
“I’m tired so I’m going to tell you like it is: This is stupid,” Goff said. “If we can take a deep breath and look at this daggone thing just a little bit more and look at some of these questions … and even potentially re-advertise something, you know, what’s going to happen in 60 days? … There’s just a lot of issues I see bubbling up to the surface and as your counsel I think you’re going down a wrong rabbithole.”
“To me this is a stall-for-time move for the county so that we can do the work and get something written that does make sense and everybody can vote on and like,” said Debbie Donehey, chair of the Board of Supervisors. “I just feel like there’s a risk there that I’m not willing to take, to not have something on the books.”
Watch the discussion starting at 2:50:00: