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Jefferson County Commission approves solar text amendments

By Toni Milbourne - For the Chronicle | Apr 16, 2021

CHARLES TOWN — Following a mixture of pro and con comments from members of the public on a proposed solar text amendment to the Zoning and Land Development Ordinance, File #ZTA19-03 to allow solar energy facilities to process as a principal permitted use in various zones, the Jefferson County Commission voted 3-1 to approve the amendment with some modifications.

The amendment will allow the solar facilities in the following zoning districts: General Commercial, Highway Commercial, Light Industrial, Major Industrial, Rural, Residential Growth, Residential-Light Industrial Commercial and Industrial Commercial. The motion to approve, made by JCC President Josh Compton, included verbiage to align the ordinance with the county’s Comprehensive Plan as much as possible while allowing for changes in social norms since the plan was adopted which would justify the solar energy amendment.

The motion also included the solar facilities would require a 50-foot setback with vegetation to provide a landscaping screen around the facilities and that the property owners would be required to maintain said screen.

Prior to the vote, commissioners heard from several members of the public opposed to the amendment, especially with the approval of a principle use permit rather than conditional use.

“It is inevitable we need to offset energy production,” said Anastasia Tabb. “But do we need to do it in Jefferson County in an uncontrolled way.”

Tabb encouraged commissioners to evaluate projects on a case-by-case basis and to move forward in a way that respects the community members already here.

Christine Marshall also called for a delay on voting, at least until the county approves a decommissioning plan. Marshall also voiced concerns that as a principle use, individuals could possibly develop as much as 5,000 acres into solar facilities.

“The county residents need to be considered as stakeholders,” Marshall said.

Timothy Ross concurred, saying that while he is all for use of renewable energy, it must be done wisely.

Thomas Lawson, with OPD Energy, suggested the 50-foot setback with screening that was eventually added into the motion for approval. The initial text in the proposed amendment had setbacks of 200 feet, but did not require the vegetative screening.

“This would allow the solar field to be obscured or invisible,” Lawson said, mentioning the only impact the solar facilities have is a visual one.

Compton, before making a motion to approve the amendment, expressed his frustration with individuals who have, in the past, wanted green, clean energy, yet are opposing the solar amendment.

“If we are serious about reducing carbon emissions, this has to happen,” Compton said. “Private property rights are at issue, too. As farmers, folks are not profitable. They could develop their land with houses.”

Commissioner Jane Tabb voted against the amendment to the ordinance.

“I don’t think 50 feet is far enough,” she said. “I want it done right.”

Commissioners Tricia Jackson and Caleb Hudson joined Compton in approving the motion, while Commissioner Steve Stolipher had recused himself, not attending the public hearing, due to a potential conflict of interest.

A second motion was approved, also with a 3-1 vote, to set the effective date of the approved ordinance as April 13, 2021.