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Commonwealth's Counties

VACo supports maintaining authority of Counties to address impacts of large-scale solar

The 2020 General Assembly will consider several bills that would limit and restrict local land use authority to address impacts due to the placement and operation of utility-scale solar projects.

VACo opposes these efforts that include the following legislative proposals:

HB 657 (Heretick) and SB 893 (Marsden) exempt any solar facility that is 150 megawatts (MW) or less in capacity from the requirement that it be reviewed for substantial accord with a locality’s comprehensive plan. A 150 MW project has a footprint of more than two square miles with potential significant impacts to forest, farm and water resources. A substantial accord review is typically a first step in the land use application process for such projects and provides both applicants and localities with guidance on whether the use and its location are appropriate. If the answer is “no” then the applicant and locality can forego the cost and time of a special use or rezoning process. If “yes” then the applicant can choose to apply for any necessary legislative and administrative approvals. HB 657 has been assigned to the House Labor and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee #3. SB 893 has been assigned to the Senate Local Government Committee.

HB 656 (Heretick) and SB 875 (Marsden) restrict the authority of counties to regulate the use of solar panels and solar storage through provisions in local zoning ordinances. Specifically, the bills mandate that local ordinances may only include certain industry standards when regulating the “… use of solar panels and battery technologies.” The bill also includes a complicated enactment clause that further limits local authority to implement zoning ordinances regulating the use of such technologies.

It is VACo’s understanding that the purpose of this new language is to prohibit a locality from determining what types of solar panels and solar batteries they will, or will not allow, through implementation of a zoning ordinance. HB 656 has been assigned to the House Labor and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee #3. SB 875 has been assigned to the Senate Local Government Committee.

HB 655 (Heretick) and SB 870 (Marsden) create a new conditional zoning process in state code specifically for solar projects greater than 5 MW in capacity. A locality adopting such a process may only accept proffered conditions, including cash payments, “… so long as such proffered conditions are reasonably related to the project.”

Most utility-scale solar projects are permitted as a “special exception” (aka special use) within agriculturally zoned districts. Any locality wishing to utilize this conditional zoning process would either need to create new zoning classification or potentially require a commercial or industrial rezoning within agriculture or forest districts. Additionally, the standard for determining how a proffer is “reasonably related” to a project poses a potential legal liability should a court determine a proffer unreasonable. HB 655 has been assigned to the House Counties, Cities and Towns Committee’s Land Use Subcommittee. SB 870 has been assigned to the Senate Local Government Committee.

VACo Contact: Joe Lerch, AICP

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