Southampton County Planning Commission sends solar ordinance to supervisors

Published 12:47 pm Friday, March 18, 2022

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The Southampton County Planning Commission voted unanimously at its March 10 meeting to send the utility-scale solar ordinance it has been developing since last fall to the members of the county’s Board of Supervisors for their consideration.

The only member of the Planning Commission not present March 10 was Drewryville District Representative Keith Tennessee.

The Southampton County Board of Supervisors voted 4-3 on Sept. 9 to establish a 12-month moratorium on consideration of utility-scale solar energy projects. The moratorium went into effect Sept. 10.

Since then, the planning commission has been working on an ordinance that Commission Vice Chair and Jerusalem District Representative John T. “Jack” Randall described as restrictive.

“We’re following the most restrictive ordinance in the state of Virginia that is in effect right now,” he said. “That’s what we’re sending to the Board of Supervisors.”

The 13-page proposed ordinance begins with a description of its purpose and intent.

“The purpose and intent of the Utility-Scale Solar Project regulations is to protect active, viable farm and forested land while permitting the installation of utility-scale solar energy projects in limited areas throughout the county, encouraging the use of brownfields and other marginally productive land,” the ordinance states.

The Planning Commission also voted unanimously March 10 to make two amendments to the ordinance just before sending it to supervisors.

Entering the meeting, one of the ordinance’s three district regulations read as follows: “The total land area devoted to utility-scale solar projects shall be no more than one (1) percent of the area of Southampton County, with the current ratios between farm and forested land being considered.”

The commission’s amendment added details on how “the current ratios” will be determined, changing the end of the regulation to read “with the current ratios between farm and forested land being used as determined by information from the Virginia Farm Service Agency and the Virginia Department of Forestry at the time of application.”

The other amendment the commission made was to the ordinance’s “Additional Requirements” section.

Entering the meeting, one of the requirements stated, “No utility-scale solar energy project shall be located within three (3) miles of another major solar energy project permitted under this section as measured at the nearest exterior boundary of each project.”

The commission changed this requirement from three to five miles.

The governing body representative on the Planning Commission is Dr. Alan W. Edwards, who is chairman of the Board of Supervisors, and he said he does not think the board’s mindset on solar facilities in the county is any different than the commission’s mindset.

Predicting how the board will react to the proposed ordinance, Edwards said, “I just don’t think there’s going to be a whole lot of problems.”

Boykins-Branchville District Representative J. Michael Mann said that sharing the ordinance with the supervisors “just adds another layer of eyes and minds on this to get some input so that we’ve got a very strong document by the time we go to the public hearing. That’s kind of what I’m looking for, because when we go to the public hearing, a lot of times, there’s people that bring some good ideas, so I try not to be locked in on an issue, because there’s a lot of smart people in this county, and it amazes me sometimes; they come up with ideas, and I’m thinking, ‘Why didn’t we think of that in the first place?’”

Community Development Director Beth Lewis said, “That’s why it’s nice to have the cushion to have the public hearing one month and make your decision the next month. If you’ve listened to an hour or a couple hours of comments, it’s hard to digest it all.”

“And a lot of times it’s good to go back and read the minutes,” Commission Chairman and Newsoms District Representative Michael G. Drake said, “It refreshes you.”

Mann added, “And I want to keep our new county administrator on board, but I don’t want to run out of time either for this ordinance.”

The Board of Supervisors, which intends to have the ordinance adopted prior to the end of the moratorium in September, is in the process of looking for a new county administrator after current County Administrator Michael W. Johnson announced last year that he will retire from the position June 30 of this year.

Edwards said the county can plan it out so that whoever is hired will be aware of the ordinance being developed.

“I don’t think it would be good to do this (ordinance), and then he or she or whoever is out of the loop when this comes through,” he said. “This is one of the biggest things that’s come down the pike in a long time.”