Solar farms said hard to define

by Madison White Franks

HEATHSVILLE—An ongoing discussion among Northumberland planning commission members and staff about solar farms went another round Thursday, January 18.

County planner Stuart McKenzie said staff is not ready to present a definitive definition of solar farms to the commission.

“We are having some issues with the definition and would like to have another month to hash it all out. We are not under any time crunch, there are no applications,” said McKenzie. “Uses are important, but until you have a definition, you do not know what you are talking about.”

Staff should be able to draft a definition by the commission’s February meeting, he said.

McKenzie noted staff seems to be okay with residents putting panels on the roof of their houses but said there needs to be a reasonable measuring cap in the ordinance.

Lee Allain of Lottsburg said the only thing the county has to worry about is if a subdivision decides to put in its own solar farm to service the community.

Commission member Albert Penley said if it is by right, it would be fine and McKenzie said that would be okay if the commission chose to go that direction.

“We don’t want to stifle innovation,” said McKenzie. “It’s unintended consequences that we are trying to minimize.”

The commission may recommend in which districts to allow solar farms by right and in which to require conditional use permits.

Commission member Heidi Wilkins said the commission should reference Gloucester County’s related ordinance where they have three definitions and three sizes.

Penley said Northumberland’s ordinance should at least have commercial and non-commercial categories. He also noted a major public concern would probably be the aesthetics of a solar farm.

In November, commission member Patrick O’Brien suggested the commission define solar farms on their intended use as commercial or non-commercial. Commercial could apply to the sale of energy. Non-commercial could include residential and any facilities using solar power to generate energy for on-site operations.

The ordinance should address some sort of provision for termination of the facility, said O’Brien. He does not want to burden people who want to install their own supplemental solar power by making them create a decommissioning plan, he added.

Chairman Alfred Fisher said this could be taken care of with a simple bond or an attachment to the deed of the property by the county in case this problem occurs.

O’Brien said he would prefer a bond as a condition of the permit.

Discussion on solar farms will continue in February.

The commission also re-elected Fisher as chairman for the second consecutive year and Penley, vice chairman. The commission will continue to meet at 7 p.m. on third Thursdays at the courthouse, 220 Judicial Place, Heathsville.