Surry energy policy vote postponed to Feb. 6

Published 5:27 pm Friday, February 3, 2023

Surry County’s Planning Commission has postponed until Feb. 6 its vote on a proposed “energy policy” amendment to the county’s 2040 Comprehensive Plan.

The amendment proposes limiting utility-scale energy project sites to 10% of the county’s land, subtracting water and wetlands, or a maximum of 15,278 acres. Of this, 9,263 acres are already taken up by existing and approved utility-scale solar farms and Dominion Energy’s nuclear plant. Another 22.8-acre parcel at the Surry-Sussex county line is slated for Align RNG’s “biogas” processing facility, leaving just under 6,000 acres available for future projects if the limit is approved.

While aimed primarily at limiting the number and location of new solar farms, the policy is intended to be inclusive of all energy sources, officials say. One point of contention that resulted in a scheduled Jan. 23 vote being pushed to February was whether the policy should make any mention of the small, modular nuclear reactors, or SMRs, touted in the Virginia Energy Plan Gov. Glenn Youngkin released in October.

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The energy policy, as of December, stated “in order to complete the necessary research and community engagement on the topic, the potential siting of SMRs in Surry County is not addressed in this amendment and will be addressed in a separate public process.”

Currently, developers looking to put solar farms in Surry County must apply for rezoning from agricultural to industrial, a land-use map amendment, a conditional-use permit and a determination by the Planning Commission that the proposed solar farm is “substantially in accord” with the Comprehensive Plan. According to Horace Wade, Surry’s director of planning and community development, the plan is to eventually amend the county’s solar ordinance – which is separate from the proposed Comprehensive Plan amendment – to specify that going forward, the rezoning and land-use map amendment would no longer be needed. Instead, the Planning Commission would review and vote only on the “substantially in accord” determination, conditional-use permit and any proposed siting agreement.

“This plan is still evolving and may change,” Wade told The Smithfield Times via email.

In 2020, the Virginia General Assembly passed legislation allowing localities to enact siting agreements with solar developers that would specify a $1,400-per-megawatt payment in lieu of machinery and tools taxes, with the per-megawatt payment escalating by 10% every five years. Currently, the proposed siting agreements bypass the Planning Commission and go directly to Surry’s Board of Supervisors.

The Planning Commission is tasked with guiding land-use decisions by recommending approval or denial of requested rezoning and permit applications. The Board of Supervisors then has the final say.