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Hanover explores land-use policies for solar energy facilities

Crixell Matthews
VPM News File
Two men install a solar array. County staff recently presented a draft framework for developers interested in installing solar power in the Hanover County to its Board of Supervisors. The draft will now be sent to the planning commission for review and public comment

Supervisors discussed the impact of adding more solar-first facilities to the county's rural landscape.

The Hanover County Board of Supervisors recently reviewed a set of land-use recommendations that would allow the integration of solar energy facilities in parts of the county.

The draft policy presented by Jo Ann Hunter, the county’s senior director of community development, guides the location and development standards for solar facilities while striving to maintain the county’s rural aesthetic and scenic resources.

“We’ve been working on this solar energy policy for a little over a year,” Hunter told the board Wednesday. “The discussions have related to developing guidance on the general location for solar facilities, the design standards that are appropriate for these facilities — and it also looked at the fiscal considerations.”

Hunter later told VPM News the county began seriously considering its stance on alternative energy sources when the General Assembly passed the Virginia Clean Economy Actin 2020, which was signed into law by then-Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat. But she also said that goal was “very aggressive.”

"We want these facilities in the county, but we want them to be sited responsibly," Hunter said.

Hanover has attracted some attention from developers after the approval of a 22-acre solar facility in the western part of the county. The developer, Ameresco Solar, agreed to pay the county about $420,000 during the next 40 years to develop the 5-megawatt facility.

Hunter said at least four developers have submitted additional proposals for the county to consider.

“We know that there's a lot of interest from developers, so we wanted to provide some sighting guidelines and some development standards,” Hunter said.

Bringing solar to Hanover

As it stands, the policy presented to the board accounts for four categories of solar installations:

  1. Accessory ground- or roof-mounted systems for electricity consumed on the property where it’s located or for residential use
  2. Supplemental ground- or roof-mounted systems for agricultural or industrial districts 
  3. Solar facility or solar farm that generates large amounts of electricity for distribution or public service corporations
  4. Battery and energy storage systems

Due to the amount of land required for these uses, the county anticipates most installations will be located in Hanover’s more rural areas, which has generated some ire from constituents, according to Hunter.

“A lot of the concerns that we hear from citizens is the visual impact of these, so looking at things like what are the appropriate setbacks and landscaping buffers and things like that,” Hunter said.

Financially, state law authorizes local governments to use one of two approaches to tax property associated with solar facilities: a revenue share per megawatt generated, or a machinery and tools tax assessment.

The current draft recommended the machinery and tools tax as a more beneficial stream of revenue for Hanover. Other financial compensation agreements based on per-megawatt cost would contribute to the county’s capital improvement plans, focusing on projects related to broadband and public safety.

Depending on the location of a facility, other capital projects could be considered for financial impacts as allowed by state code.

The policy also presents preferred locations and land-use requirements for each designated installation category. Forested buffers and viewshed canopies would be required in some cases, while protections for historical or natural resources would be required in others.

For example, Hanover’s Suburban Service Area comprises a concentration of areas not designated for high residential density and growth while maintaining the county’s general well-being. The SSA is where public water and sewer service is planned, allowing higher density development to occur.

Under the current policy no major solar installation shall measure more than 1,000 acres and must be located outside of the Suburban Service Area as shown on the County’s Comprehensive Plan.

However, that may change. Hanover’s Planning Commission is reviewing the policy to possibly include some areas of the SSA. Supervisor Sean Davis of the Henry District said residents have expressed openness to the idea.

“There may be areas in the SSA now that people would much prefer a buffered solar farm than they would a large housing project, particularly a high-density housing project,” Davis told supervisors. “So it would give some more options for land preservation and maintaining rural character.”

Davis received a consensus of support from the board — with hesitancy from members like Chickahominy District’s Angela Kelly-Wiecek.

“Options are good, but let’s understand we're having more and more calls for us to take large swaths of what's left of the suburban service areas and maybe create parks,” Kelly-Wiecek said. “I just want everybody to think about that as you review the policy and you think about the long-term future of our county.”

Lyndon German covers Henrico and Hanover counties for VPM News.