Seth Maughan, SolUnesco's director of projects, presenting to the Albemarle County Planning Commission. Credit: Credit: Tim Dodson, Dexter Auction

Albemarle is one step closer to allowing the construction of solar farms after the county’s Planning Commission endorsed a zoning text amendment at its meeting Tuesday.

“The applicant in this case hopes to develop a photovoltaic energy generation facility in Albemarle County,” said Scott Clark, a senior planner for the county. “However, no form of energy generation is a permitted use in the [rural areas] zoning district, so we would have to amend the ordinance to make it a permitted use before they could apply.”

SolUnesco, a Reston-based renewable energy company, wants to build an 11-megawatt photovoltaic solar energy generation system on 70 acres in southeastern Albemarle, near the intersection of the Thomas Jefferson Parkway and Buck Island Road.

A county staff report said “the current zoning ordinance allows transmission and distribution of energy, but not generation.”

County staff is recommending that solar energy systems be a permitted land use in the county’s rural areas with a special-use permit.

In April, the Board of Supervisors directed the Planning Commission to hold a public hearing on amending the zoning ordinance and to make a recommendation.

If the board approves the zoning text amendment, SolUnesco will be able to apply for a special-use permit.

Although the commissioners unanimously recommended approval of the zoning text amendment, they raised several questions about viewsheds and the potential for supplemental regulations.

Commissioner Karen Firehock asked about the impact of solar farms on viewsheds in the rural areas.

“Would the county also do that extra level of analysis to make sure it’s not becoming part of the view and scenic backdrop?” Firehock asked. “We don’t own our neighbors’ land but we do appreciate the vistas that we have in Albemarle County.”

Commissioner Bruce Dotson noted that visibility is a major criteria associated with evaluating the construction of cell towers in the county.

“Is there some sort of equivalent standard or primary variable, like visibility, that we would look at here?” he asked.

Although the special-use permitting process looks at a variety of factors, including visibility and screening, and the board can impose conditions when granting permits, the county does not have regulations specific to solar generation facilities.

Throughout the course of Tuesday’s discussion, county staff indicated that regulations specific to solar facilities could be developed over time.

“Long-term, we hope, as we have time and have experience, to create sort of a tiered structure where there are some more opportunities for by-right uses, similar to how we did the cell towers, but we can create some performance standards and things like that,” said Amelia McCulley, the county’s zoning administrator. “That’s not something we can do in an expedited zoning text amendment.”

“I think what we’re starting with here is setting a high bar with requiring board approval for all of them,” Clark said.

Seth Maughan, SolUnesco’s director of projects, told commissioners that the company had commissioned a study that looked at the impact of the site from the perspective of Monticello, which is also located off the Thomas Jefferson Parkway. He said it found “no impact from glare at those distances.”

“In any special-use permit that came before me, I would also want to see more analysis beyond if there was a famous tourist spot looking on it,” Firehock said later in the meeting, saying she would like to see a more detailed analysis of the impacts.

Maughan noted in his presentation to the commission that 19 other counties in the state have approved utility-scale solar projects, although he said numerous other counties likely have zoning ordinances that would allow solar generation projects to be proposed.

“I would think there would be a huge value in looking to those other localities and what regulations they have as we move forward,” Commissioner Jennie More said.

Commissioner Pam Riley asked about the lease arrangement of the proposed facility.

Maughan said it would be a 25-year lease with the option to renew for 10 years. He also said SolUnesco would be responsible for removing equipment at the end of lease.

When commission Chairman Tim Keller asked about the relationship between Dominion Energy Virginia and SolUnesco, Maughan said the two entities work together on interconnection agreements. SolUnesco’s facility would generate power for Dominion’s grid.

Only two members of the public spoke during the hearing — Jeff Werner with the Piedmont Environmental Council and Morgan Butler with the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Werner offered “conditional support” for the project, noting that he views the county’s experience with the special-use permit process for the first solar farm — if the zoning text amendment is successful — as an opportunity to inform potential future supplemental regulations.

“SELC supports allowing solar farms by special-use permit in the rural areas,” Butler said. “But there are important questions that will need to be grappled with when the first proposal comes forward and it may well demonstrate the need for a set of supplemental regulations for this use.”