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Solar ordinance addressed by supervisors

On Tuesday, the Franklin County Board of Supervisors put the finishing touches on comprehensive plan and zoning code language dealing with solar facilities.

The zoning code and comprehensive plan changes are part of the county’s response to growing interest in solar farming in Franklin County.

“We do have two [entities] in the non-zoned areas that we’re aware of that are very interested in moving the process forward, and one in the zoned area that I’m aware of,” Assistant County Administrator Steve Sandy said.

In July, the county will hold public hearings on the ordinance and comprehensive plan language. The comprehensive plan will govern the non-zoned parts of Franklin County, while the zoned parts will be subject to both the comprehensive plan and ordinances in the county zoning code.

Before signing off on the public hearings, though, the board made some changes to the language previously approved by the Franklin County Planning Commission.

With regard to the ordinance, the board’s primary change — recommended by county staff and adopted by the board — would prohibit facilities from being located in Designated Growth Areas in the zoned part of the county. DGAs largely match up with village areas. Otherwise, utility-scale facilities would only be allowed in A1-, M1, M2 and planned commercial district-zoned areas, and only with special-use permits.

“Every one of those cases in the zoned area would have to come to the board and be evaluated on a case-by-case basis,” Sandy said.

The supervisors also followed county staff’s recommendations to remove a 1,500-acre limit on land occupied by solar facilities in the county and an item requiring a one mile minimum distance between facilities. Another adjustment made by the board would require facilities be set 150 to 300 feet back from all property lines and public right of ways.

In the non-zoned parts of Franklin County, solar facilities would be subject to the comprehensive plan.

Planning and zoning staff presented the supervisors with three options for comprehensive plan language to deal with solar facilities.

The first, least restrictive option was previously approved by the Planning Commission. The second option—which was recommended by county staff—was more restrictive, with the third and final option being the most restrictive.

The supervisors went with the second option, which would crucially require facilities to have either a project-specific siting agreement approved by the county or show compliance with Virginia Code section 15.2-2232.

Either way, Planning Director Lisa Cooper said, all projects would have to go before the county for approval.

The comprehensive plan language approved by the board would also require solar facilities to be screened from public view, “not visually impact scenic and cultural resources, including the view shed from residential areas and event venue spaces” and avoid impact on “available farmland, including prime farmland and farmland of statewide significance.”

County Attorney Jim Guynn said some of the language—including “view shed” and “statewide significance”—were purposely left vague to allow the supervisors and planning commissioners to apply their own judgement in specific situations.

Not everyone is thrilled about the idea of solar farms in Franklin County, but Guynn pointed out that some regulation is better than none.

“Not doing anything is exactly how you will not preserve [the county’s natural beauty], because you don’t have any regulation over it,” Guynn said.

Siting agreements, ordinances and comprehensive plan requirements won’t be the only factors informing the location of solar facilities. Generally-speaking, Sandy said, solar farms need to be near power substations. South-facing land is also desirable to get the most sun exposure.

Following the public hearings in July, the board may vote to adopt the ordinance and comprehensive plan language.

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