On August 16, 2021, Judge Debra McLaughlin, in the Circuit Court of Jefferson County, issued a ruling that invalidated the text amendment ZTA 19-03 to the Jefferson County zoning ordinance. The now-invalidated amendment was written to allow development of utility-scale solar power facilities as a principal permitted use (i.e. by right, without the necessity of submitting a site plan for public review) in rural, residential growth and other open lands in the county. Prior to this amendment, utility-scale solar projects were not listed as a permitted use in any zoning district in Jefferson County, so with this court ruling, utility-scale solar facilities cannot be built until the County Commission takes new action to amend its zoning ordinance.
The initial application to amend the zoning ordinance to allow large-scale solar projects, submitted in November 2019 by a county resident working with Torch Clean Energy, proposed that these types of facilities be allowed as a conditional use in the rural district only. During the review and discussion of this application by the Planning Commission, the proposed amendment was changed to designate solar facilities as a principal permitted use. Immediately prior to the vote to recommend the amendment to the County Commission in June 2020, the Planning Commision further modified the amendment to include residential growth to the list of zoning districts where solar facilities would be a principal permitted use.
The amendment was invalidated based on the Court’s finding insufficient evidence that the amendment was in agreement with Jefferson County’s Comprehensive Plan. In her ruling, Judge McLaughlin stated, “because the [Jefferson] County Commission failed to make any factual findings on which this Court can find that the STA [solar text amendment] is consistent with the comprehensive plan or that there has been a change in the area, the STA was not legally adopted. This Court does find the “Findings of Fact” to be woefully lacking in any reference to the comprehensive plan, noting that they contain only 2 citations to the comprehensive plan and only one of the two actually speaks in favor of solar energy. Accordingly, this Court does find that the STA is invalid and unenforceable.”
Kathy Santa Barbara, attorney for the local residents who filed the civil action, offered a statement on behalf of her clients: “The zoning ordinance provides opportunities for public hearings and we hope that the County will follow that directive.” The County Commission met on August 19 and discussed the court case in executive session, but no details on the Commission’s next actions were disclosed in open session. The Planning Commission will likely be having a similar discussion later in August.
The Observer will continue to update this story as the County Commission and Planning Commission disclose their next steps.
Visit The Observer’s Solar Sightline story for related articles and resources about commercial-scale solar projects in Jefferson County, West Virginia.