Group draws on others’ lessons as they suggest updating Rockingham’s solar farm ordinance

By Eric Gorton, Contributor

Because being first is not always best, a committee reviewing and proposing updates to Rockingham County’s solar farm ordinance is happy to draw on the experience of other communities.

The most common regrets the committee has heard from localities that already have ordinances deal with environmental and aesthetic effects of allowing thousands of solar panels to be constructed on acres of land. 

For instance, some communities lamented insufficient requirements on buffers to reduce visibility of the facilities and insufficient requirements for ground cover to prevent loose dirt from being swept into streams, said Brent Trumbo, a former county supervisor who leads the committee.

Formed in late October, the committee is nearing completion of its review, and its recommendations  could be delivered to the county planning commission in the coming weeks, Trumbo said. The Board of Supervisors created the committee to explore how best to handle increasing demand for land to build those solar farms, including a request last year by New Energy Ventures, Inc./Endless Caverns Solar LLC to put up solar panels across a swath of land in northern Rockingham County. 

Regardless of what the committee suggests, public hearings must be scheduled before the ordinance can be adopted. It likely won’t be in place until late spring or early summer.

Committee member Kim Sandum said the update is necessary because the scope of solar projects being proposed now is significantly different than when the county first drafted the ordinance in 2015.

Trumbo said the committee embraces solar energy and its carbon-reducing benefits but doesn’t want to propose ordinances that could be detrimental to the county’s number one industry: agriculture. Among measures under consideration are placing a cap on the acreage that can be developed with solar panels. There are a couple of possible approaches, such as putting a cap on the number of solar panels that could be constructed in the county as a whole, or setting a per-project cap, Trumbo said.

“It’s a tough issue,” Trumbo said, adding that there’s not a “one-size-fits-all” solution. The committee is trying to strike a balance that will benefit solar energy, agriculture and tourism.

Rockingham County has long been the top agricultural county in Virginia, with a market value more than double that of the next top-producing agricultural county, Augusta. In 2017, the most recent census of agriculture by the National Agriculture Statistics Service shows Rockingham with agricultural sales of $795.9 million compared to Augusta County’s $292.5 million.

“We have to get this right. We want to preserve what makes Rockingham County great,” Trumbo said. “Rockingham County feeds the world.”

With an abundance of open land, Rockingham County is attractive to solar farm developers.

Sandum, the Rockingham County Coordinator at Alliance of the Shenandoah Valley, said the demand for land leases by prospective developers reminds her of the rush to lease land for fracking several years ago.

“Developers are knocking on lots of doors, it sounds like,” she said. “I’m hearing that there is a lot of interest and that would be because of the state incentive, the Clean Economy Act, and some of the other incentives that the legislature has put in place.”

Trumbo, who owns a farm in the Timberville area, has firsthand knowledge of that demand. 

He said companies have been relentless in pursuit of leases, offering anywhere from $600 an acre up to $1,300 an acre for 30 to 35 years. The going rate for renting pasture is about $200 an acre, he said.

“If you have utility lines running across your property, you’re being contacted,” he said.

Trumbo also said it’s not just outside companies angling for a piece of the action. Some county farmers also are interested in diversifying their revenue streams and solar provides an opportunity.

The opportunity to diversify the revenue stream and preserve land that has been in farming for hundreds of years is what led Max Quillen and his family near Waynesboro to join a group of landowners hoping to develop a solar farm there. The Augusta County Board of Supervisors denied their request last year, but that decision is now being appealed.

“It was a good deal for us,” Quillen said. “It’s not like hitting the lottery, but it’s still a good deal.”

The New Energy Ventures, Inc./Endless Caverns Solar LLC proposed solar farm plans call for about 87,000 solar panels to be constructed on 151 acres of the land, which has two Dominion Virginia Power transmission lines running through it and is adjacent to a Dominion substation.

Large solar farms, some covering hundreds of acres and others encompassing thousands of acres, are springing up around the state. Utah-based sPower is building the largest solar farm east of the Mississippi in Spotsylvania County, a facility that will have 1.8 million solar panels on more than 6,000 acres. In Frederick County, a solar farm occupies 1,000 acres.

Closer to home, the Town of Mount Jackson has approved special use permits for a utility-scale solar farm to be built on nearly 500 acres while Page County continues work on crafting an ordinance there. Augusta county, in addition to denying the request by the group in which Quillen is part of, has denied one other, according to records kept by Alliance of the Shenandoah Valley.

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 was a banner year for solar farm development around Virginia. The state added 1,406 megawatts in 2020, ranking fourth in the nation according to statistics compiled by the Solar Energy Industries Association and Wood Mackenzie.

The growth is expected to continue, adding some urgency for Rockingham to have an updated ordinance.

“The work this committee is doing, supported along the way by county staff, is extremely important,” said committee member Kevin Flint, who represents northern Rockingham County (District 1) on the planning commission. “Everyone is trying to learn as much about it as they can and prepare for the future. We need to have the right framework in place to harness this growth as it comes.”

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