WOODSTOCK—Shenandoah County Planning Commission members pressed pause on a special use permit application that would open up roughly 200 acres of land for a solar farm.
Darryl Bates is working in partnership with Hannah Solar to purchase and set aside land for the Virginia Solar project, a solar farm spanning five parcels of land in the county. Some of that land is zoned for agricultural use and would be pulled out of that designation if the project moves forward.
Bates said his only role in the project was to purchase the land and work with the developers. In order to get financiers interested in the project, he said, they need to know the county is on board with the project — thus his special use permit application.
“Nobody is willing to spend a dime,” Bates said, “until we get a special use permit or a special use permit with a contingency on it.”
Permitting and setting up a solar utility farm is a long process, Jill Jefferson, county planner, said at last week’s Planning Commission meeting. Besides the special use permit required from the county, the developers also need to address stormwater studies; access to the site for construction as well as maintenance; a conversation with the Virginia Department of Health to address the abandoned well and septic on the property and the solar permit by rule process with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.
The permit by rule process is a 90-day period that involves the DEQ checking and assessing potential solar utility sites and requiring mitigation practices for environmental impacts such as interfering with vulnerable wildlife habitats.
Going through the permit by rule process essentially paves the way for solar developers to set up a site with the blessing of the DEQ, but local governments still have the power to shape what they want to see, Jefferson said.
“The onus is on locality to create conditions on the site that make it compatible,” Jefferson said. “Compatible as commissioners deem feasible with surrounding land use.”
The largest concern for commission members was the lack of input from the Virginia Department of Transportation on the site. Bates said he had a number of potential right-of-ways but, because he doesn’t have one signed over to him, VDOT couldn’t inspect the site.
Conrad Helsley, chairman of the Board of Supervisors, said he wasn’t comfortable approving a permit without a right-of-way on it.
“I can’t recall a Board of Supervisors approving a [special use] permit where they didn’t know where the access is going to be,” he said. “I just don’t ever recall that. Even though you don’t have to develop the access, I think you have to know or have the letter that says ‘I’ll give you access.’”
Bates tried to convince the commission members and supervisors to consider approving his request with a contingency that he would obtain a right-of-way but they voted unanimously to table the permit until they could do some more research.
“Solar power is something we don’t know a whole lot about,” Gary Lantz, chairman of the Planning Commission, said. “Solar has not been around long enough for any of these programs or studies to have been made. We don’t know the impact that it would have on this gentleman’s property.”
Commission members plan on inviting Mary Major, a DEQ staff member who specializes in the permit by rule process, to come and talk with them. They also plan on visiting a solar farm site to learn more about similar projects.
Tim Taylor, a commission member, said another factor they need to consider is how technology is changing. Solar energy proponents tout its technological advancement and utility as infrastructure of the future, but how it is phased in needs to be considered, Taylor said.
“What’s solar going to look like in five years?” Taylor asked. “A lot of these conditions we’re making now, what are those going to look like in five years?”
“I totally agree on the use of this when it comes to where it’s located.” Taylor continued. “We’ve got to cross our t’s and dot our i’s. Let’s get educated and make some visits.”