Surry planners endorse policy limiting solar farms to 10% of county land

Published 12:26 pm Friday, February 17, 2023

An “energy policy” amendment to Surry County’s 2040 Comprehensive Plan that would limit utility-scale projects to 10% of the county’s developable land is on its way for a final decision by the Board of Supervisors.

Surry’s Planning Commission voted on Feb. 6 to recommend supervisors approve it.

The amendment, while intended to be inclusive of all energy sources, is aimed primarily at limiting the number and location of new solar farms. It would set a maximum of 15,278 acres, not counting water and wetlands, as the cumulative amount of land allocated for energy projects. 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. If approved by the supervisors, the amendment would leave just under 6,000 acres available for future projects.

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

One point of contention that had resulted in the originally 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. The February draft states the Comprehensive Plan amendment is “reflective of the state energy technology and the energy industry at the time of adoption” and that as “innovative energy technologies” such as SMRs “emerge and progress, the County will assess its energy policies and make updates as needed.”

The February draft also now specifies that the county will “adopt a formal approval process” for energy facilities, which would give the Planning Commission a first look at any siting agreement proposed by an energy project developer to the supervisors. The process will be developed separately from the Comprehensive Plan amendment, and will also include “land use approval” and a determination that any proposed energy project is in “substantial accord” with the Comprehensive Plan.

“This is a framework. … We do have some next steps,” said Commissioner Diane Cheek, noting the process would entail not only reworking the approval process but also potentially changing Surry’s existing solar ordinance.

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 project is substantially in accord with the Comprehensive Plan. Horace Wade, Surry’s director of planning and community development, had stated in January that the approval process may eventually change to do away with the need for rezoning or a land-use map amendment.

A third change to the Comprehensive Plan amendment since January is the addition of verbiage stating the county will require conformance with Virginia’s stormwater management program regulations, and specifying that solar panels will be considered “unconnected impervious surfaces” in water quantity and water quality calculations.

An impervious surface is an area impenetrable by water. The added language reflects what is stated in a 2022 Virginia Department of Environmental Quality memorandum. The memo specifies that the panels themselves, and not just the posts that secure them in the ground, will be counted as impervious surfaces for any solar farm that does not obtain an interconnection approval by a regional electric transmission organization or electric utility by Dec. 31, 2024.

The Planning Commission’s vote to  recommend the proposed Comprehensive Plan amendment passed unanimously with member Thomas Hardy and Board of Supervisors liaison Judy Lyttle absent.