This SIGHTLINE covers topics surrounding the development of commercial-scale solar energy generation facilities in Jefferson County:
- Opportunities for public involvement
- Why the County is considering amending its zoning ordinance
- What determines the location of a solar development
- The status of proposed and potential solar projects in the County
- How zoning influences land use
- How solar could benefit the rural economy
County Commission Votes To Allow Industrial Solar
On April 12, 2021, the Jefferson County Commission held a public hearing and then voted 3-1 to approve text amendment ZTA19-03 to the Jefferson County Zoning and Land Development Ordinance, to be effective on April 13, 2021. With this amendment, Jefferson County’s zoning ordinance allows large-scale solar energy facilities to process as a principal permitted use in the rural, residential growth, and other zoning districts. Prior to adoption the Jefferson County Commission voted to make a change to the amendment to allow reduced setbacks if screening vegetation is installed by the project developer.
Amending the County Zoning Ordinance
While the Envision Jefferson 2035 Comprehensive Plan (adopted in 2015) discusses renewable energy, it does not include specific references or guidance for developing the commercial-scale generation facilities currently proposed. The Jefferson County zoning ordinance (as amended December 17, 2020, prior to the April 13 2021 amendment) had no provisions for permitting these facilities anywhere in the county.
In early 2020, a landowner in the Kabletown district petitioned the Jefferson County Planning Commission to amend the county’s zoning ordinance to allow for commercial-scale solar projects to be developed in Jefferson County. This initial request asked to allow solar facilities as a conditional use in the rural zoning district.
In response to the petition, the Planning Commission drafted a text amendment (ZTA19-03) to the county zoning ordinance. The Planning Commission sent its recommended text to the County Commission in July 2020. The recommended amendment text added the residential growth and other districts to the original rural district as areas to allow commercial-scale solar facilities. The recommended amendment text designated solar facilities as a principal permitted use (versus the originally-requested conditional use permit type).
In response to the Planning Commission’s recommendation, the Jefferson County Commission held two workshops and a public hearing on the proposed amendment during the summer and early fall of 2020. The County Commission voted to adopt the amendment to the zoning ordinance in October 2020. The County Commission later voted to vacate that approval in December 2020 and requested the Planning Commission to further review the proposed amendment.
|Information and Resources About Zoning in Jefferson County|
|Zoning Ordinances (Jefferson County Website)|
|Zoning Maps (Jefferson County Website)|
|Envision Jefferson 2035 Comprehensive Plan (download PDF)|
|Future Land Use Map for Jefferson County (download JPG)|
The Planning Commission held a public hearing on the amendment at its regular meeting on February 9, 2021. On February 23, the Planninc Commission convened a special meeting to discuss the public comments and the amendment language. The agenda packet for this meeting which includes the proposed amendment text and comments submitted by the public is available at the Jefferson County website (link).
Following the discussion at the February 23, 2021 meeting, the Planning Commission requested its legal council to prepare an analysis of the compatibility of the proposed amendment with the County’s comprehensive plan. The Planning Commission reviewed this legal analysis on March 9, 2021 and voted to recommend the proposed amendment to the County Commission.
On August 16, 2021 Judge Debra McLaughlin, in the Circuit Court of Jefferson County, issued a ruling that invalidated the text amendment ZTA1903 to the Jefferson County zoning ordinance.
Connecting Solar Energy to the Power Grid
The process for siting and connecting a new source of power to the energy grid requires years of planning and research. Part of this process includes a review by PJM Interconnection (PJM). PJM evaluates new projects to determine the feasibility and requirements for connecting to grid in West Virginia, as well as in several other states in the central and eastern U.S.
The PJM Connection Queue is an online database that tracks the all proposed utility-scale energy projects in the Mid-Atlantic. Currently, five utility-scale solar projects have been proposed in Jefferson County. Although there is some capacity for additional projects in Jefferson County, suitable sites are much more limited than zoning maps might indicate.
The community discussion of commercial-scale solar generation facilities touches on issues related to the environment, land use, the local farm economy, the regional economy, and the effect of these large-scale facilities on adjacent residential and agricultural land owners.
Balancing Land Use
Land is a limited resource, which is why making decisions about land use often turns into a balancing act of priorities. From preserving scenic vistas, to building affordable housing, to increasing renewable and dependable energy sources, and encouraging economic growth, all of these concerns come into play when trying to define what balanced land use means.
Solar In The Rural Economy
The rural economy is evolving. Solar has the potential to become part of the new landscape and enable farmers and other agricultural operators to remain financially viable.