Planning Commission defers removing utility-scale solar from ag zoning districts

By Heather Michon

A special meeting of the Planning Commission on Tuesday (June 25) ended in a deferral, as committee members failed to reach a consensus on a measure that would eliminate utility-scale solar facilities on land zoned as agricultural.

Under current ordinances, solar projects of two megawatts or greater are allowed on land zoned A-1 (Agricultural) with a special use permit.

In March, the Board of Supervisors approved a “resolution of intention” that directed the Planning Commission to amend the zoning code “to remove utility-scale solar generation facilities as a use allowed by special use permit in the Agricultural, A-1 Zoning District.” 

A second resolution directed the Planning Commission to develop a package of supplemental regulations for small, minor, and utility-scale solar projects.

Supervisors have the final approval on zoning changes, and they envisioned approving the zoning amendment in the summer and the supplemental regulations in the late fall. 

Since the Planning Commission’s July 9 meeting would fall after the supervisors’ only July meeting, Tuesday’s special meeting was focused solely on passing the amendment.

Public hearing

The public hearing lasted for about half an hour and included close to a dozen speakers.

Members of the community were split on the issue, with some residents arguing that utility-scale solar projects would benefit Fluvanna by funneling revenue into the county. 

In contrast, others argued it had the potential to harm farmers and ruin some of Fluvanna’s unique landscapes and qualities.

Also on hand were representatives from solar companies and utilities, who encouraged commissioners to continue to allow utility-scale projects on agricultural land under a more robust set of regulations.

“You can do all you want to do in the A-1 district,” said Kyle West of Vega Renewables. “You can implement responsible land use measures. You can increase taxation through a revenue share ordinance and negotiate a beneficial siting agreement. All solar projects right now are negotiating siting agreements to get approved.”

Harry Kingery of CEP Solar said his understanding was that the county was considering implementing a special solar zoning district. If a solar project were proposed for land currently in A-1, it would have to first be re-zoned as S-1.    

“In essence, creating a new S-1 district adds unnecessary complexity to the process, increases the workload for staff, and involves more decision-making for the board,” he argued. “These projects can be effectively regulated through strong ordinances, which you are already working on, and by reviewing projects on an individual basis.”

In opposition, Jason Sweeney, who gave a presentation to supervisors in January as the lead of the nonprofit Citizen Defenders of Fluvanna County, argued that utility-scale solar projects were “completely at odds with the idea of an agricultural zone.” 

“We’ve been here many times, and we’re not going to rehash the various issues that are presented by solar – but I will just say, I vigorously deny the claim that it is ‘clean energy,’” he added.


Commissioners Lorretta Johnson-Morgan (Columbia) and Kathleen Kilpatrick (Fork Union), who both sit on the Solar Ordinance Review Committee, found themselves at odds on the best way forward.

“I’ve listened to both sides of this, and tonight’s discussion was mostly about people’s rights. That can go both ways,” said Johnson-Morgan. “There’s the right of the person who wants to put solar on their farm, and then there are the rights of their neighbors. I think, as a county, we shouldn’t put too much weight on one and not on the other. They should be equal.”

She felt this process allowed them to “tailor this for Fluvanna County.”

Johnson-Morgan made the motion to approve the zoning amendment but failed to find a second.

Kilpatrick felt there were still too many open questions and argued for a more deliberative approach to the process before taking such a big first step.

“I am sensitive to some of the things that have been said tonight,” she said, “but we appear to be putting the cart before the horse, before we fully explore the ordinances and the comprehensive considerations and the whole context of the regulatory requirements that we want to have in place. I am frankly a little discomforted by the enormity of this step without knowing where we’re going next.”

She pointed out that the ordinance review committee had only met once since April and had not even discussed some new information they had all learned at a joint meeting of the commissioners and supervisors in June.

After considerable debate, Kilpatrick moved to defer action until July 9. Eddie Shifflett (Rivanna) seconded her motion, which passed 3-1, with Johnson-Morgan voting against and Barry Bibb (Cunningham) absent for the evening.

Utility-scale projects now in the planning pipeline and applications for new projects are essentially on hold until new ordinances are in place later this year.

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