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Culpeper planners ponder 'special provisions' for large solar projects
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Culpeper planners ponder 'special provisions' for large solar projects

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Asked by the Board of Supervisors last summer to create a zoning classification to further regulate large renewable-energy projects, namely solar panels on vast swaths of farmland, the Culpeper County Planning Commission decided in recent months this is not the right approach.

Instead, the commission is recommending “special provisions” be included as part of conditional-use permit requirements.

The proposed new section, Standards for Renewable Energy Generation/Utility Scale Solar Facilities, is largely modeled after the county section setting standards for telecommunication antenna and towers.

Not creating a new land zoning classification will cancel the county’s ability to add “prohibited uses,” county planning staff stated in a recent report. But staff recommends prohibitions on battery-storage facilities for solar projects as well as “concentrated solar power facilities.”

Currently, policy limits solar projects in Culpeper County to 300 acres, but some elected officials have expressed willingness to waive that—if and when any solar projects get built here. Several have been proposed on large agricultural tracts along the Dominion power line, but none have yet to successfully navigate the local government approval process.

In the meantime, staff and the commission are working hard behind the scenes to set the rules.

“Standards for utility scale solar uses” such as setbacks and height restrictions can be addressed as part of the conditional-use permit “special provisions” approach regulating large solar projects, as well as details about decommissioning. How a solar project will be removed at life’s end is a particular area of environmental focus for many on the Planning Commission and among county staff.

The special provisions would establish standards for maintenance requirements, fire and EMS training, noise provisions, erosion and sediment control, vegetation management, protection of soils, blasting and slope restrictions, and groundwater protection measures.

Certain items would still be required as part of the existing CUP application for large solar projects to include an interconnection and feasibility study, viewshed analysis, landscaping plan, traffic impact analysis and mitigation plan, natural resource inventory, stormwater management plan, geotechnical analysis, floodplain analysis, local fiscal impact analysis, and historic resource impact analysis.

At a work session Wednesday night, the commission delved into details of the proposed special provisions for utility scale solar projects. The 14-page addition, developed by staff, organized the regulations under bullet points A-X with multiple numbered points under each letter.

Each commissioner took a turn going through each provision at the three-hour meeting. Raymond Ziegler wanted to know what happens to the conditions when a large solar project gets sold to a large utility company.

County Attorney Bobbi Jo Alexis, seated in the audience at the recent meeting in the county administration building, said she was working to address that.

“I think I can get you there,” she said.

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Commission Vice Chairwoman Laura Rogers felt it would be important “to see the leases” to determine ownership of a project.

She later commented developers should be required to notify the county when a project changes ownership, as part of a proposed special provision section listing annual reporting requirements.

“I think that would be helpful to know who we’re dealing with,” Rogers said.

Everyone should be bound by the requirements, Alexis said of her understanding of what surety the planning commission seeks from the landowner, the project manager, etc.

“Bind everyone you can,” she said, “and make it very difficult to pass the baton” to a new owner.

The “default position” in a question of ownership will be the landowner, Culpeper County Planning Director Sam McLearen said.

Alexis said, “We want to be able to have as much accountability for all parties.”

Other items the commission supported in terms of regulating solar power plants was implementing a civil fee schedule for project violations and increasing the buffer from solar panels to waterways on site to 100 feet from 50 feet.

Some members wanted to know if they could prohibit blasting during construction.

Commission Chairman Sanford Reaves spoke up at this, urging caution in attempting to do that. He mentioned current county ordinance allows regular blasting at local rock quarries. What would be most impactful, Reaves went on, building 300 homes or driving poles into the ground for solar panels.

“Whatever we are currently requiring is what we should be doing,” Reaves said of blasting provisions already addressed in county code.

Planning Director McLearen said solar-farm developers would regulate themselves in that regard as well. Blasting rock to insert poles for solar panels is not inexpensive, he said. Solar projects are becoming more and more competitive, McLearen added.

“If they can do a project without blasting, they will,” he said.

The Planning Commission will hold another work session on the solar project special provisions at 6 p.m. May 19 in the county office. A public hearing on the proposed section will be held June 8 in the auditorium at Eastern View High School.

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