Solar ordinance triggers discussion

Lazaro Aleman
ECB Publishing, Inc.

Looking to get ahead of the curve, the Jefferson County Planning Commission this week was scheduled to revisit an ordinance that seeks to regulate solar energy generating facilities – a measure that they began considering about two months ago in preparation for the eventuality of such systems locating here.
Not really a farfetched idea, given that Planning Official Shannon Metty has already received several inquiries from entities interested in locating solar farms in rural areas of the county.
The planners' workshop on the ordinance was scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 9.
The last time that the planners considered the ordinance was on Thursday, Dec. 12, when Metty presented them with a reworked copy of a draft ordinance that she had presented to them at an earlier workshop. The reworked ordinance incorporated the changes that the planners had suggested, largely having to with adding buffering, lighting and decommissioning requirements.
Michele Arceneaux, a citizen with concerns about the possible proliferation of solar facilities in the county, urged the planners at the Dec. 12 workshop to implement safeguards into the ordinance.
Arceneaux told the planners that now was a critical time for Jefferson County, which she said was in danger of becoming “a doormat for the rest of the state.”
“We have cheap land, which makes us a target for these entities,” Arceneaux said.
She argued that solar farms didn't bring jobs and that granting them blanket approval in all agricultural areas zoned for five and 20 acre tracts (Ag-5 and Ag-20 land-use categories) would be a disservice to residents.
“A blanket approval takes away all power from the residents and the county commission,” Arceneaux said.
She encouraged the planners to follow the example of Illinois, which requires a conditional use permit process for such facilities.
A conditional use is one that is deemed potentially appropriate in, and compatible with, the uses permitted by right in a particular zoning district, but that still requires individual consideration and regulation. Conditional uses are not automatically permitted by right in the various zoning districts.
Arceneaux urged the planners to incorporate a like requirement in the local ordinance so as to give the community more control of the process.
“Have some prepared regulations for a conditional use permit,” Arceneaux said, urging also that the planners set restrictions against such facilities locating in wetlands and historical properties.
“Once we lose these special features of our county, we won't ever get them back,” Arceneaux said.
It fell to Planner John Walker to play devil's advocate and offer the countering point of view. Not that he believed in global warming, Walker said. But it seemed to him, he said, that if people were set on stopping global warming and saving the world, solar energy was the way to go.
“So now we're going to block solar panels with all these regulations?” Walker asked. “If you're trying to save the universe by solar energy, you don't want to regulate everything to death.”
Walker said that he loved farming and maintaining the rural aspect of agricultural lands. But land had to prove useful and provide a living or it wasn't worth keeping, he said.
“When people can't make money on farming, they've got to do something,” he said. “Would you rather that they have solar farms or houses? Because people have to do something to make money. Just because you own property doesn't mean you have money. People have to do something to make a living. And if they can't make a living, they're going to sell the farm.”
Walker said he had lived long enough and seen what was happening in the rest of the state to know that development was coming to Jefferson County. He also knew, he added, that he couldn't compete against development.
“It's coming,” Walker said. “Farms shut down. People die. And the kids don't want to farm. They sell the place for houses.”
His point, he said, was not to over-regulate or regulate the industry to the point that it drove the businesses away and deprived landowners of earning a living.
“We need to think of all aspects of this,” Walker said. “The crowd is coming and we can't stop it.”
The solar ordinance states upfront its purpose, which is to set standards for the construction, installation, operation and decommissioning of solar photovoltaic collector systems in a manner that promotes economic development; ensure for the health, safety and welfare of residents; and avoid adverse impacts to surrounding properties.
It defines a solar photovoltaic collector system as one that generates electricity for use in the home, accessory structure, equipment or that is tied into an electric grid. And it distinguishes between small and large-scale systems.
A small-scale solar collection system is defined as one that is used primarily to offset the on-site consumption of utility power. Any roof-mounted system, according to the ordinance, is considered a small-scale solar collector system, regardless of power output.
A large-scale solar collection system is defined as any such system other than a small-scale solar collection system.
Small-scale systems, per the ordinance, would be allowed in all zoning districts, permitted through the building department, and must adhere to setback requirements if ground-mounted.
Large-scale systems, on the other hand, would be permitted only in Ag-20, Ag-5 and industrial districts as special exceptions and would require the approval of the planning and county commissions.
Large-scale systems also must meet setbacks and buffering requirements, especially if they are situated alongside roadways, and they must have a decommission plan that provides for the removal and lawful disposal of all equipment at the end of their useful lives.
At present, the county has no regulations for solar power generating facilities, meaning that they can locate almost anywhere. To date, the Planning Department has received inquiries from several groups interested in locating solar facilities here, with at least two of them of 600 or more acres.