A developer wants to put a solar-power generation facility on part of its 605-acre property in northeastern Front Royal.
The Front Royal Limited Partnership submitted several requests to the town Department of Community Development earlier this year related to a proposal to build a solar energy facility. The partnership sought changes to the Comprehensive Plan and the Zoning Ordinance meant to open the door for such a project and the necessary special-use permit.
The Planning Commission intends to hold a work session this coming Wednesday to further discuss the Front Royal Limited Partnership’s requests and proposals.
Specifically, Front Royal Limited Partnership, seeks to change the town’s Comprehensive Plan and associated maps as it relates to the developer’s 604.76-acre property in northeast Front Royal. The developer also wants to add a “large photovoltaic solar power project” to the list of uses allowed with a special-use permit on land in the Agricultural and Open Space Preservation District. David Vazzana filed an application for a special-use permit dated June 8 on behalf of Front Royal Limited Partnership for a proposed “utility solar facility” on 177.98 acres of the developer’s 604.75-acre property.
Vazzana responded to several questions by email Thursday concerning Front Royal Limited Partnership’s intentions, including the impetus for putting a solar facility on property once eyed for residential and commercial development.
“We have talked to 4-5 solar developers and would partner with one of them for the (Virginia Department of Environmental Quality) approval process (after the local entitlements),” Vazzana stated, referring to town approvals. “The proposed solar facility would be complementary to development of the balance of the site in the future.”
The solar panels would cover 75-125 acres, or 10-20% of the Front Royal Limited Partnership property, Vazzana explains. The facility would occupy land in the northern part of the property, to the west of Marys Shady Lane, south of Interstate 66 and along the existing east-west power line corridor, Vazzana states.
Land use is the most regulated industry in the country, with local, state and federal oversight, Vazzana states. But this proposed project benefits from “regulatory tailwinds” at the state level through legislation passed by the Virginia General Assembly in 2017 and 2019, and with the federal solar investment tax credit program, Vazzana adds.
The proposed project is still in the early part of the approval process, Department of Community Development Director Timothy Wilson explained by phone Wednesday and hit some delays as a result of procedural errors. The Planning Commission started the process and took actions before Wilson took over the department.
“In reviewing these actions preparing for the Planning Commission to take action on them and looking at the staff reports ... I noticed that there were some procedural errors in how the amendment to the Zoning Ordinance as well as the amendment to the Comprehensive Plan were not procedurally correct and that, with it not being procedurally correct and defective, (the commission) should not move forward,” Wilson said.
The department director said he consulted with the town’s attorney and they agreed the actions taken by the commission pertaining to the proposed changes to the Comprehensive Plan and the Zoning Ordinance did not meet all requirements under state code.
“We wanted to make sure any action that moves forward is procedurally correct,” Wilson said.
Wilson lays out in his Oct. 15 memorandum to the Planning Commission the unintentional mistakes made and ways to correct them. The Front Royal Limited Partnership, in a letter dated Feb. 12 to then Zoning Administrator and Enforcement Officer Christopher Brock, requested the proposed changes to the Comprehensive Plan and land-use map to the part of town referred to as the Marshall Planning Area, Wilson states in his memorandum. The developer requested in a June 8 letter to Brock, now code enforcement officer with the department, the proposed changes to the Zoning Ordinance pertaining to land uses allowed in the agricultural and open space preservation district. The developer also submitted its application for the special-use permit.
Wilson notes in his memorandum that a property owner or representative can submit an application for a special-use permit directly. However, state code does not allow property owners or agents to directly request changes to either the town Zoning Ordinance or the Comprehensive Plan, Wilson explains. Only the governing body may make changes to the ordinance or plan by way of adopting a resolution, if initiated by the Planning Commission, and approving a motion to do so, Wilson goes on to state.
Vazzana presented the proposals to the Planning Commission at a work session on June 17. The commission decided at the work session to schedule a public hearing on the proposed changes to the Comprehensive Plan and Zoning Ordinance as well as for the special-use permit application, Wilson notes.
But the department staff contend that only the Town Council, not the Planning Commission, can initiate changes to the Comprehensive Plan, as allowed under state code, according to the memorandum. The Planning Commission action to amend the Zoning Ordinance did not meet certain requirements, Wilson notes.
The Planning Commission’s formal actions to initiate changes to the town’s adopted plans and ordinance were improper for any public body to take at a meeting advertised only for work-session purposes, Wilson said.
Department staff found the commission’s actions “defective” and rendered null and void, the memorandum states. Therefore, the town cannot advertise the proposed changes and the associated permit application for a public hearing, Wilson states. The town can correct the procedural defects, according to the memorandum.