Amendment on solar energy facilities passed by Suffolk Planning Commission

Published 5:42 pm Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Suffolk Planning Commission passed a Unified Development Ordinance amendment for solar energy facilities in a 6-0 vote during its Tuesday, Nov. 21 Planning Commission meeting. Commission members held a public hearing on a proposed text amendment for Chapter 31 of the Code of the City of Suffolk regarding solar facilities regulations. Suffolk Senior Planner Joshua Bateman, AICP, presented the proposed amendment explaining “what made the cut” in the final draft.

“When we were making this amendment, we were guided by the comprehensive plan, particularly those goals and policy statements that speak to the need to preserve the city’s agricultural heritage,” Bateman said.

For the current zoning regulations, Bateman’s presentation noted that solar facilities are “only permitted with an approved CUP [Conditional Use Permit] in the Agricultural (A), Light Industrial (M-1) and Heavy Industrial (M-2) zoning districts.” Other current solar facility regulations from the UDO presented included:

  • Dimensional Standards: Minimum setbacks – 50 feet, Maximum height – 25 feet, Minimum lot size – five acres.
  • Installation and Design: Compliance with ANSI standards and state/national codes; undergrounding of transmission lines; perimeter security fencing; prohibition on glare.
  • Decommissioning: Plan describing methods for removal of components; performance surety; removal within three months if discontinued (no power generated for a continuous 24 months).
  • Screening/buffering: 15 feet or 50 feet in width (adjacent to residential). Maximum 25% deciduous plant material.

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Bateman provided an overview of the proposed amendment, saying that it “looks to clarify the purpose statement of why we regulate these things in the first place.” 

The amendment would discuss minimizing the effects of solar impacts on surrounding residences, farmland, scenic viewsheds along rural roads, natural and cultural resources, and public safety. The amendment would also prohibit solar facilities on agricultural-zoned properties within the city’s growth area and impose a 0.5% cap of total land zoned agricultural permitted to be developed for solar facilities.

“Other metrics were looked at such as basing the cap on the total amount of certified cropland, but that number is variable year to year and so we wanted to base it on something for which there is reliable data and that remains more or less fixed,” Bateman said. “Currently, we have approximately 470 acres of solar that’s been approved in Suffolk and all except about 20 acres is on land that’s zoned agricultural and all but 20 acres on land that’s located outside of our growth area” 

Bateman said that his department’s settlement on a 0.5% cap would yield 805 acres. Other features the amendment would provide includes a requirement of increased setbacks along road frontages of 150 feet and being adjacent to residential properties of 100 feet. In addition, a requirement for avoiding impacts to critical areas (such as wetlands and floodplains), stream buffers, mixed-species forests and historic resources was included, among others.

For amendments that require additional information during a CUP application, Bateman noted a visual impact analysis, including photo simulations to demonstrate the impact of each solar field.

“Sometimes these things are a bit of a painstakingly slow process, but if we go through the process, we can feel a little bit more sure about the outcome at the end of that process,” Bateman said.

There was no support or opposition to the ordinance. Commissioners MaryEllen Baur and Kittrell Eberwine were not in attendance at the meeting.