Sunday, October 1, 2023

Solar Farms A Growing Trend in Hampton Roads

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Solar farms are popping up all over the state. On the Peninsula, one is being built in York County off Penniman Road in the general vicinity of Water Country USA. James City County approved a solar farm on Racefield Drive in late 2021, and there’s another one also slated for Toano. Two other solar farms were recently approved for Gloucester County.

However, officials from those localities say that is not by grand design.

“In very general terms, solar projects are going to come about where it makes sense to have them,” said Matt Johnson, the assistant director of economic development for York County. “I don’t think that the county is necessarily going after a bunch of solar projects, if you will.”

The solar project scheduled for the Kings Creek Commerce Center in York County is an example of taking advantage of a good opportunity.

“That’s a place where a solar facility really fit well,” Johnson said, adding the project also provided an opportunity to attract other businesses to that piece of property. “(It) set the stage for future development out there, not necessarily related to solar.”

Unlike James City County and Gloucester County, York County does not have a lot of large open spaces, so Johnson doesn’t predict large solar farms coming to the county. He can see a commercial property owner installing solar panels on the roof to benefit that specific building.

“That’s something you’re more likely to see in York County,” he said.

He stressed it will come down to being a good fit, and an effective use of the property.

“Certainly, solar and wind renewable are big and important industries,” Johnson said. “There’s certainly a role in there. We’ll see how everything shapes up.”

James City County’s director of community development and planning, Paul Holt, said his locality doesn’t have a specific vision for solar farms laid out in the comprehensive plan.

“When an application for a new solar far comes into the county, we don’t really look at it as to pro and con, from the business sense,” he said. “We really review them for land-use impacts.”

He said that includes their impacts on storm water and traffic, among other areas.

“It’s just a different type of analysis,” he said. “Since these are really private-sector developments, we look at them like we would any land-use.”

He hasn’t noticed a significant increase in solar farm applications in the county, but he has seen anecdotal evidence of their increased popularity throughout the state.

“Especially counties and localities that have rural areas,” he said.

In Gloucester, which is far more rural than James City and York, one solar farm is up and running, and another four that are in the planning stages have been approved.

“(It) took us by surprise by how many solar farms were coming to the area,” said Robert “J.J.” Orth, chair of the Gloucester County Board of Supervisors. “We’re not alone. Some of the other rural counties in the region are also experiencing the same thing.”

He noted many residents expressed concern because they were receiving solicitation letters daily or weekly from large solar energy companies.

“We said maybe we need to step back and look at this,” Orth said.

The board of supervisors and the planning commission created guidelines. In essence, the solar farms are allowed in only two districts – the rural area and the suburban countryside. Additionally, they are not permitted in areas that are deemed environmentally sensitive, wetlands or low-lying, and they will be limited in size. However, if a business owner wants solar on his building to produce the energy to run the business, that is okay.

“I think the county recognizes that we want to maintain the rural atmosphere,” Orth said. “We don’t want to become a dumping ground for anyone who wants to have a solar farm.”

He said it’s hard to predict what role solar energy will play in the county in the coming years. It is becoming more efficient and more affordable every year. On the other side, there’s concern with what will happen to these solar farms when they are no longer useful.

As for now, Gloucester officials are taking a cautious approach.

“I think it’s another industry that the county looks at as relevant,” Orth said.

See related story on solar options in Hampton.

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