AMHERST — A new ordinance regulating solar energy facilities and projects is up and running in Amherst County.
The land use regulations, approved on a 4-0 vote during the Amherst County Board of Supervisors’ Oct. 6 meeting, apply to small, agricultural and utility-scale solar facilities. Small facilities are those serving the electricity and thermal needs of a single property.
Jeremy Bryant, director of community development, said solar generation facilities have been proposed across Virginia for years but have not been permitted in Amherst County’s zoning ordinance prior to the board’s vote. State lawmakers have made several changes to law that make such facilities more useful and beneficial, Bryant said.
“We are required to allow small solar facilities as a by-right use in virtually all districts,” Bryant said in a report to supervisors. “This ordinance … puts us in a better position by requiring them to comply with nationwide safety codes.”
Agricultural producers may build solar facilities not exceeding 1.5 megawatts generally on 12 to 15 acres and use net energy metering to sell production back into the grid when excess generation occurs, a benefit to farmers in saving money, according to Bryant. Those facilities typically are larger than small ones and are a by-right use in the agricultural-zoned district and a special exception use, which calls for review and public hearings from the county’s planning commission and the board of supervisors, in the residential-zoned district.
Utility-scale facilities are set solely as special exception uses in certain districts.
“Many of these utility-scale projects can be large,” Bryant said.
He said he is aware of one such project in a neighboring locality that is 600 acres.
“The first concern that people often have is how obtrusive the facility will be to neighbors,” Bryant said in a Sept. 17 memo to the Amherst County Planning Commission.
To address such concerns, the special exception process gives county officials authority to craft conditions to limit a utility solar facility’s impact on neighbors, Bryant said.
Any solar sites generating up to 150 megawatts must obtain a permit from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, according to Bryant. Facilities exceeding 150 megawatts generally will need some form of review by the State Corporation Commission along similar lines, he added.
In recent months the county received requests from a solar company and local landowners for moving forward with setting up a solar facility, Bryant said. SolAmerica Energy recently obtained an opportunity to interconnect with Appalachian Power Company’s electrical grid and is expected to submit a plan for a facility consisting of 35 to 40 acres, Bryant told supervisors.
Ryan Peters, an environmental engineer with SolAmerica, addressed the board during a public hearing.
“It’s a very good ordinance. It’s thorough,” Peters said. “We look forward to working with the county moving forward.”
Bob Hopkins, director of public utilities, also spoke during the Oct. 6 hearing and said he’s interested in pursuing a solar panel project at the Amherst County Service Authority’s water plant to reduce monthly energy bills.
The board suspended its rules to allow the hearing without a first reading of the new ordinance, a standard procedure for implementing new zoning regulations. Supervisors Jimmy Ayers, who was absent from the Oct. 6 meeting, and Chairwoman Claudia Tucker requested expediting the ordinance without the first reading to accommodate scheduling for SolAmerica’s upcoming special exception request, Bryant has said.
Any solar sites or farms already established in the county are grandfathered into the zoning ordinance, he added.
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