Surry County approves 10% cap on solar farms

Published 4:43 pm Monday, April 10, 2023

Surry County supervisors have approved an “energy policy” amendment to the county’s 2040 Comprehensive Plan limiting utility-scale solar projects to 10% of the county’s developable land.

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 sets 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. The amendment leaves just under 6,000 acres available for future projects.

Surry’s Planning Commission began working on the amendment last year after the county distributed a survey that, according to staff, resulted in a majority of the 181 respondents agreeing that Surry “already has enough” utility-scale solar farms. The proposal, however, had drawn a mixed reaction from local and out-of-area residents at the planners’ and supervisors’ respective November and March public hearings, some of whom argued the policy infringed on  landowners’ rights.

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Under the adopted language, the entire acreage of any parcel on which solar panels are located – and not just the fenced-in project site – will count toward the 10% cap.

The policy passed 4-0 with Supervisor Tim Calhoun abstaining from the vote due to his employment with Dominion.

Supervisor Breyon Pierce asked if the policy could go even further to “halt” future solar projects. County Attorney Lola Pierce stated it would be “very difficult” to impose an outright moratorium, since state law allows for the development of solar farms.

The policy is not as restrictive as an ordinance under consideration in neighboring Isle of Wight County that would impose a near-moratorium on solar farms.

Isle of Wight supervisors are scheduled to consider on April 20 an ordinance that would limit the cumulative acreage of existing and proposed solar farms to 2% of the county’s “prime” farm soils, or a maximum of 2,446 acres. If approved, it would leave just 383 acres in Isle of Wight for new solar projects.