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County looks to get ahead of requests for solar facilities

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Eying continued interest in the potential of bringing solar energy projects to Goochland, county supervisors last week voted unanimously to begin the process of amending the county’s current ordinance governing those operations.

While he didn’t have an exact number, assistant director of community development Ray Cash told board members on Oct. 6 that he and other county staff members field inquiries almost daily from residents and those outside the county about solar projects of varying scales. And while Goochland currently has just one large-scale solar collection facility—the once-popular term “solar farm,” Cash pointed out, has fallen out of favor since no farming actually takes place—the projects have been cropping up in neighboring counties at a steady pace. Louisa, for example, already has 5,600 acres approve for solar facilities.

The idea now, Cash explained to the board, is to make sure that the county has a solid plan in place that will allow Goochland to capitalize on the demand for the projects while also maintaining the county’s rural nature. Currently, Goochland’s county code allows for the use of solar panel provided the set-up does not produce more than a home or business would typically use.

Larger scale solar energy collection facilities are currently allowed in the county’s agriculturally zoned land only with a conditional use permit (CUP).

Under the revised policy Cash presented to the board, the county would allow businesses located in industrial areas the flexibility to use rooftops of existing structures for solar panels that could produce energy for sale back to utility companies. The structures used would need to be those already in use for the business, and could not be constructed specifically for solar production.

The ordinance would also help lay out clearly defined rules and procedures for large, utility scale solar projects, including mandating that the facilities be located only in agriculturally zoned areas and limited to contiguous sites between 30 and 1000 acres.

Setbacks would be required, including a provision that would locate solar collection facilities at least 150 feet from any property with a residence, as well as what Cash described as significant wooded landscape buffers for screening the projects from public view.

As Cash pointed out, much of the recent county-level discussion on solar energy has been driven by the state’s Commonwealth Clean Energy Policy, which has a stated target of reaching zero emissions in all sectors by 2045.

Cash said the interest he has seen in solar production has come largely from outside the county, but added that there has been interest from county residents as well.

Board members did raise concerns about what recourse the county would have if a solar collection facility developer failed to properly remove equipment and other materials associated with the site once it was no longer in use, though the new ordinance language does include a provision requiring solar collection facility developers to obtain a surety providing for the decommission of each site.

Developers would be required to return the site to its natural state within one year, and could not dispose of solar panels or recycle them in Goochland.

The board’s vote cleared the way for the matter to be added to the Planning Commission’s upcoming agenda, and District 1 supervisor Susan Lascolette predicted that the matter will likely draw strong reactions from those both for and against the ordinance change.

She and other board members, however, agreed that the time was right to address the issue.

Board chairman Neil Spoonhower said he was “ecstatic” that the board is discussing solar energy production now before a large-scale project was in front of them. “Proactivity is something you don’t often see in government, so that fact that we are doing this now, when we can be thoughtful about what we want for our residents, is really good.”

“The more minds you bring to a problem, the better the answer,” said District 5 supervisor Ken Peterson. “It is time to bring the citizens in, because they are going to be able to envision things that we haven’t been able to. Hopefully that will yield a better solution—they can envision more consequences and we can address those up front.”

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