CHESTERFIELD, Va. (WRIC) — Chesterfield County is contemplating higher standards for solar development as companies rush to expand green energy across the state.
At a meeting of the Chesterfield Planning Commission on May 17, county planning staff recommended a number of amendments to the county’s zoning ordinance that designed to head off environmental concerns over runoff and erosion.
Currently, solar projects in Chesterfield are regulated by amendments to the local zoning ordinance made in 2019, and are allowed in agricultural zones with a conditional use permit. Andrew Gillies, Chesterfield County planning director, said the solar projects were placed there instead of under industrial zoning to preserve the latter for “employment-generating” uses.
In the years since, demand for green power across the commonwealth has increased as Dominion Energy increasingly shifts its focus to renewables. Proposals for new projects had increased so much, a Dominion representative said, that an interstate power exchange had to temporarily pause applications for new interconnections.
That shift has also brought some growing pains with it.
“There’s been a lot of lessons learned,” said Sterling turner, an environmental consultant for Dominion.
Scott Dunn, a member of the county’s environmental staff, said that under previous state regulations, “stormwater runoff from solar farms was potentially being underestimated.”
That oversight had real consequences. In Louisa County, the Central Virginian reported that Dominion was forced to apologize to farmers after runoff from a solar farm there flooded their property.
“We have had issues – compliance issues – requiring cleanups,” Turner admitted to the commission, but, he added, Dominion was recommending changes to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
A Higher Standard
Dunn and Turner both recommended a number of new policies that could help the county head off future problems like those seen in Louisa.
Turner said Dominion supported counties moving towards stronger erosion control, more sediment basins and aggressive re-vegetation. Turner added that ground cover was especially important, calling it the “most effective stormwater treatment system that there is.”
Dunn made more specific recommendations to the commission, saying staff supported two main changes that have already been integrated into many current cases.
The first is a requirement that all panels be set back at least 35 feet from any Resource Protection Areas (RPA) on the property. RPAs are wetlands, including streams, lakes and rivers, that are protected under Virginia law to preserve water quality.
Dunn said the extra buffer would encourage developers to leave trees standing near wetlands, helping to reduce pollution in the waterway by maintaining ground cover.
The other recommendation was to forbid the construction of solar panels on “steep slopes” with a grade of over 20% – codifying a requirement the county has already enforced in ongoing projects.
The commissioners expressed their support for the additions, with Bermuda District commissioner Gib Sloan saying, “The quicker we can move this along the better.”
The commissioners agreed to hold a public hearing on the proposal in July. The ordinance amendment will need to be approved by both the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors.