Council retreat zeroes in on affordable housing and solar facilities

Published 5:36 pm Tuesday, April 18, 2023

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Part two

Suffolk leaders and officials came together earlier this month for the City Council’s annual retreat to discuss broad topics such as affordable housing and solar facilities.

The April 6-7 retreat allowed for more in-depth discussions among council members on issues facing the city.

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Mayor Michael D. Duman spoke further on the retreat with the second half of Thursday’s topics on housing and solar.

“Everyone came to the same conclusion that having affordable housing,” Duman said. “There’s an extreme shortage of affordable housing based on the escalation of rents. There’s a need for affordable housing.”

Referring to the presentation held by Carl Hardee of Lawson Companies and Planning, Duman said he and his fellow city council members received “good information” and had a better understanding of affordable housing. 

Affordability was described in the retreat’s presentation as “tied to the Federal Housing and Urban Development’s annual median income for a metropolitan area.” The presentation also showed 2022 based data on Hampton Roads families of four with the median household income being over $93,000. Low income was listed as above $74,000 — 80% of the median income and very low income as over $46,000 — 50% of the median income.

“The individuals that purchase affordable housing or provided affordable housing have to adhere to the same guidelines as anyone else. They need jobs, they need credit, the difference is just the income,” Duman said. “This is one of those topics where, as I mentioned earlier, we may not have solved, or decided if you will, exactly what we’re going to do; but we got information. We processed that information,. We talked about it, and so we’re going to be revisiting affordable housing. It’s not just going on the back shelf.”

Another retreat topic was solar facilities, which has also been a discussion point at various Suffolk public forums. Elizabeth Marshall of Weldon Cooper UVA and Planning Staff presented the council with information detailing how solar facilities operate along with incentives, environmental concerns and decommissioning. Duman addressed solar farms becoming a “consideration” following the retreat.

“Most solar farms end up in agricultural land. It has to be a topic that we become familiar with and we can establish the necessary guidelines that will allow solar facilities under particular circumstances, in a particular place,” Duman said. “Right now, every solar facility requires a conditional use permit.”

No such project can be approved by city administration, it requires council action.

“This is one of those issues that some folks may not be as crazy about as others, but solar facilities are going to be a topic of discussion and are going to continue to come forward.”

When solar facilities were first looked in years past, Duman said there “really wasn’t much guidance.” But this has changed. When asked about if farmers and solar facilities can co-exist with some farmers not worrying about having to include them into their space, Duman responded positively.

“I think absolutely can,” he said. “You also look at land rights too and for some farmers, the ability to have a solar presence on their land could provide them the steady stream of income that would be necessary for them to maintain their farming operations. So it’s not necessarily if we do solar, we’re prohibiting farming.”

Duman said opting to support some solar can facilitate the ability to continue farming in some cases.

“Once again, we have to look at it. We may have to put a limit on the percentage of land that’s used for that,” he said. “There’s a lot of misinformation out there, especially as far as decommissioning is concerned.”

The mayor said people are concerned about what happens once the solar project is done or goes out of business.

“All these projects are bonded. So in the unlikely event somebody goes out of business, we can go to the bond and have them decommissioned,” Duman said. “There’s a guarantee that when those are reconditioned that the land goes back to the original condition, and that is bonded.”

Duman also noted that solar farms do not bring more traffic with them.

“There is no strain on any service whatsoever as far as that of what facilities are concerned. It’s pretty much a no brainer,” he said. “But we have to be concerned about location, appearance, safety, does it have any negative effect on the quality of life of anyone in the area: those are the kind concerns that we need to have. And we just need to have the guidelines be made clear and maybe look at, maybe larger setbacks. We just got to tweak it and kind of see what will work. The trick would be for everybody to get along together, to be able to have a solar facility in the right place, when you take everything else into consideration.”