Companies or individuals could soon be allowed to open solar panel farms in Nelson County. The Nelson County Planning Commission is considering adding new language to the county ordinance which would allow for commercial solar energy farms.
Currently, there is no way for an individual or a company to apply for a special use permit or an application to build a solar farm in Nelson, because it is not addressed in the county ordinance. The discussion came to fruition after a number of companies recently approached the county asking about the possibility of solar farms.
Last week at the Nelson County Planning Commission’s July meeting, members discussed the possibility of adding a definition for commercial solar energy systems into the county ordinance and also add it as a special use in certain districts.
“We are looking for your feedback; if you want to pursue adding it in as special use, review case by case, and in the process working in a solar farm ordinance similar to wind energy section,” Dylan Bishop, director of planning and zoning, told the planning commission.
Commissioners ultimately agreed they weren’t against the possible change, but needed more information before pursuing it further or making any decisions. Mary Kathryn Allen, chair of the planning commission, was absent. Tommy Harvey, board of supervisors representative for the planning commission, said making any decisions without more information was like “putting the cart before the horse.”
“We need to be educated,” Chuck Amante, East District representative, said.
The planning commission came to the consensus to defer making any decisions regarding solar farms either in the ordinance or as a special use application.
The commission asked Bishop to find someone who is educated extensively on solar farms that can present them the information they need to make a formal decision, including the pros and cons of having them in the county. The planning commission also asked Bishop to find out more about how other counties have proceeded with solar energy possibilities.
“This may be the way to go, but we still need to know more,” Philippa Proulx, North District representative, said. The planning commission will discuss the possibility again in August.
The planning commission spent the last forty minutes of its monthly meeting discussing a request from Devils Backbone Brewing Company to add the possibility of construction camps in Nelson as well as the recent problems with the “non-conforming use” definition in the Nelson County ordinance.
Devils Backbone put in a request to extend the allowable stay of transient lodgers to more than 30 days. Transient lodging in the county ordinance is defined as lodging in which the temporary occupant lodges in overnight accommodations for less than 30 days. Bishop said 30 days currently is the maximum stay and is specifically for those working on construction projects in Nelson.
This request received immediate backlash from the majority of the planning commission and Harvey. Harvey said when the brewing company was first constructed, this was specifically not allowed to happen.
“The whole thing with Devils Backbone is so that they could not do construction camps there,” Harvey said.
Proulx echoed her agreement and said the reason the request came in now is most likely for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, LLC. With construction workers building the pipeline and needing places to stay long-term, Devils Backbone Brewing Company has the potential to make a lot of money if it had a construction camp on its property, according to Proulx.
Bishop told the planning commission if they considered extending the allowable stay of transient workers, she suggested they look at only allowing it as a special use permit application in agriculturally zoned districts.
“Also, you can recommend conditions on that. It would be a case-by-case basis,” Bishop said.
Proulx said if they consider allowing this, although personally she doesn’t like the idea, she suggested the definition be much more restrictive.
“It would be hard to regulate,” Proulx said.
The members came to a consensus to not pursue this request further before moving to the hot-button issue regarding the definition of “non-conforming” in the county ordinance.
There has been disagreement about what is allowed in a “non-conforming” structure and what “non-conforming use” means since Todd Rather, partner with Rockfish Valley, LLC, requested a special use permit to open a restaurant inside an existing structure at 9845 Rockfish Valley Highway.
Rath, former Planning and Zoning Director Sandy Shackelford, and County Attorney Phil Payne agreed it could be allowed even though the current structure doesn’t conform to the agriculturally zoned property where it sits. Upset neighbors and some board members like Harvey, disagreed. The Board of Zoning Appeals upheld Shackelford’s determination in May. The Nelson County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 to not grant the special use permit due to front-set back requirements the building in question doesn’t meet.
Despite the decision, the definition of “non-conforming” is still debated between boards and board members, although most agree it needs to be addressed and revised in the ordinance regardless of where they stand.
Bishop’s initial suggestion included adding an intent section, new language about non-conformity of a structure, and addressing the terms ‘structure,’ ‘lot,’ and ‘use’ separately and making them more clear when they do relate to each other, and possibly adding language from the Virginia State Code.
The planning commission agreed to have Bishop draft the proposed changes that would hopefully address confusing language and clarify definitions different governing bodies have recently disagreed on and then have Payne review it. The planning commission will review the newly revised ordinance at the August meeting before making any decisions.
Erin Conway covers Nelson County for The News & Advance. Reach her at (434) 385-5524.