Helping Counties Plan for the Impacts of Utility-Scale Solar Facilities

June 18, 2018

By The Berkley Group

On the Virginia and North Carolina border is Mecklenburg County, which has thousands of acres of agricultural and forested land, and an abundance of high voltage transmission lines. Mecklenburg County became the unexpected, but ideal site for solar energy companies to locate utility-scale solar facilities.

While the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) oversees nearly all the applications of wind and solar energy projects in the Commonwealth of Virginia, the counties are responsible for reviewing the land use impacts of renewable energy facilities, and what changes – if any – to make to their Comprehensive Plan and Zoning Ordinance.

The Code of Virginia §15.2 states that a Planning Commission must conduct a 2232 Review to determine if the facility complies with the Comprehensive Plan. The review ensures that the project is in substantial accord with the Comprehensive Plan (i.e., not in conflict with the County’s current or future land use, doesn’t negatively impact environmental, cultural, or recreational resources, etc.). Additionally, if utility-scale solar uses are permitted, the County’s Zoning Ordinance should set forth application requirements and development standards.

But when there is no mention of renewable energy facilities in a County’s Comprehensive Plan or Zoning Ordinance, how can the potential impacts of a utility-scale solar facility be evaluated?

In 2016, Mecklenburg County received two utility-scale solar facility special exception permits (SEP) for the Bluestone and the Grasshopper applications. At the time, the County’s Comprehensive Plan did not address guidelines for utility-scale solar facilities. Instead, the Comprehensive Plan focused primarily on the preservation of the County’s rural landscape. The Bluestone application outlined a 332.5-acre, 49.9 MW facility, while the Grasshopper application described a 946-acre, 80 MW facility. Given the size and scale of the proposed projects, there were numerous land use impacts that needed to be evaluated.

Without guidelines in the Comprehensive Plan, it was difficult to determine exactly how the projects would impact Mecklenburg County’s growth areas; affect prime agricultural land, habitat, soil erosion, and other environmental factors; and mitigate these potentially negative effects. At this point, the County sought outside expertise and hired Gentry Locke Attorneys and The Berkley Group for assistance in evaluating the County’s land use tools relative to utility-scale solar facilities.

Ultimately, Mecklenburg County’s Comprehensive Plan was amended to specifically address land use impacts of solar facilities. The amendments included identifying major electrical facilities, developing growth area boundaries, recommending additional public review opportunities, creating locational parameters, and identifying mitigation strategies. Through these amendments, local officials can better evaluate solar facilities within the context of their Comprehensive Plan and other County policies and regulations.

In addition to Comprehensive Plan amendments, Mecklenburg’s Zoning Ordinance also needed updating. While the Zoning Ordinance did address solar facilities, it was insufficient to adequately regulate larger scale facilities. For example, pre-application meetings are an effective tool, and planners can require applicants requesting Special Exemption Permits (also called special or conditional use permits) to follow certain guidelines such as: posting a public notice, outlining development standards, coordinating local emergency services, and properly planning for decommissioning. Similar performance measures can further mitigate potential adverse impacts.

While the land use impacts of utility-scale solar facilities on Mecklenburg County may be considered unusual in number, size, concentration, and scope, all utility-scale solar facilities impact land use in some way; therefore, it is important to explicitly state specific criteria that reflects the community’s values and concerns in both a County’s Comprehensive Plan and Zoning Ordinance to properly guide the development of renewable energy facilities.

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