Surry restricts solar farm locations

Published 1:16 am Wednesday, December 19, 2018

By Frederic Lee 

Staff writer 

SURRY — The Surry County Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance Dec. 6 restricting solar farms to land zoned general industrial with a conditional use permit.

County staff had also included land zoned agricultural in its draft ordinance, but the Board removed that option. 

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Currently, about 90 percent of land in Surry County is zoned agricultural, meaning that farmers who want to put a solar farm on their land must go through the comprehensive land use amendment and rezoning process, which requires approval by the Board of Supervisors, according to Rhonda Russell, Surry County coordinator of planning and community development. 

For small farms of 10 acres or less, an additional review process is required to assess the land’s agricultural viability — a review similar to another passed years ago concerning turning small farms into residential lots, according to Russell.  

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The Surry County Planning Commissioners were concerned with small farms being converted to non-farm uses, said Russell.

Also, land that has been rezoned industrial for a solar farm can return to agricultural use through the rezoning process, said Russell. 

Applications for solar farms must also meet various site development requirements, such as minimizing visual impacts. 

So far, Surry County has approved three solar farm projects, but so far, there are no panels constructed, said Russell. 

Prior to the approved solar energy ordinance, Surry County was silent on solar farm projects, said Russell.

During the discussion prior to the Board’s approval on Dec. 6, Dendron District Supervisor Michael Drewry voiced concern that a number of farmers in the county were receiving offers on their land for use as solar farms. 

Residents attending the Dec. 6 Board meeting also voiced similar concerns. 

Drewry was also critical of the broadness of a conditional use permit aspect if they were to be applied to land in the county zoned “Agricultural – Rural.” According to Russell, 90 percent of Surry County is zoned (A-R). 

Later on in the meeting, the (A-R) zoning designation was removed from the ordinance, leaving general industrial district, (M-1) and (M-2). 

 “I’m not understanding how we are allowing (solar farms) now,” said Drewry at the meeting, pointing out that the ordinance was silent on solar farms. Russell replied that the county ordinance states that land uses that aren’t specifically outlined — like solar farms — are to be regulated as the most comparable land use. Russell stated that the most comparable land use listed in the county zoning ordinance was wind farms.

According to Russell, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality is responsible for determining the technical and environmental aspects of solar energy projects in the state, and whether or not they’ll have negative natural or cultural impacts. She added that other localities were “all over the place” in terms of how they regulate solar farms, noting that most don’t have renewable energy ordinances. 

Additionally, the newly adopted ordinance permits solar “collecting” in all parts of the county — such as solar panels on a house — as long as it isn’t associated with a solar farm. Those wanting to install solar collecting units have their own requirements to fulfill, including setbacks and size limitations.  

Surry and Isle of Wight counties are desirable for solar farms because of the number of large farms, the flat topography and the proximity to more transmission and distribution lines than the average county in Virginia, according to Dominion Energy. 

Isle of Wight County has approved two solar farms — one that has been completed in the Longview area and another to go along Route 258, near Redhouse and Orbit roads.