Zoning Changes Accommodate Solar Power Plant

The Clarke County Board of Supervisors approved zoning ordinance changes last week that clear the way for a possible solar power generation plant near Dinosaur Land. Although a formal proposal for the project has not yet been submitted to Clarke County, the zoning changes demonstrate that the Supervisors are interested in the prospect of the 20 megawatt facility being offered by Cornerstone Power Development of Chicago, Illinois.

Nick Bullinger of Cornerstone Power Development briefs Clarke County Supervisors on proposed solar power plant - Photo Edward Leonard

Cornerstone has its eye on Monty Gibson’s 145 acre farm just north of Route 340 and east of Route 522 near the Double Tollgate power substation.

Cornerstone’s Nick Bullinger told the Supervisors Monday night (June 14)  that solar power has only become financially viable in the last few years as installation and equipment costs have decreased. Bullinger also pointed toward stronger institutional support for solar generated power. “Pennsylvania has mandatory requirements for purchasing solar power” Bullinger said. “Virginia’s solar power support is voluntary.”

Bullinger and Cornerstone requested three changes to Clarke’s Zoning Ordinance:

–                 Addition of “Large Photovoltaic Solar Power Plant” as a permitted special use in Agricultural-Open Space-Conservation (AOC) Zoning District

–                 Supplementary Regulations for Uses in various Districts to allow regulations for “Large Photovoltaic Solar Power Plant”

–                 Addition of a definition for “Large Photovoltaic Solar Power Plant”

Clarke County currently has two 138 kV power substations; the Double Toll gate substation and another substation just west of Berryville. The zoning ordinance amendment also requires that any new power station be located within one mile of one of the power substations.

Bullinger said that Clarke County was an attractive location for a solar plant, in part, because of Virginia’s relatively high electricity rates.

Power created by the solar facility will be supplied to the national power grid through the Double Tollgate substation. According to Bullinger, once the power hits the grid it becomes available for sale.

“Customers could be Rappahannock Electricity Cooperative, Dominion Power or companies that sell power to consumers outside of Virginia.” Bullinger told the Supervisors.

Although no formal special use application for the solar facility has been submitted by Cornerstone, the Clarke County Planning Commission and staff back the concept.

“The solar power station is consistent with Clarke County’s comprehensive plan” Planning Administrator Chuck Johnston told the Supervisors. “The comprehensive plan endorses using renewable energy wherever possible and diversifying the County’s tax base. Limiting solar plants to within one mile of a substation also protects the agricultural character of the County.”

Johnston said that tax revenues in the first year will be approximately $400K.

Although formal debate by the Board of Supervisors on the project will not commence until Cornerstone formally submits the details of its plan, two supervisors offered potential areas of concern.

Supervisor Barbara Byrd (Berryville) asked about landscaping requirements to buffer the industrial site from nearby homes. “Neighbors will be looking at this won’t they?” Byrd also was wary of potential issues that could be caused should the project fail.

“We could be left with a wasteland of concrete” Byrd said. “We need to be concerned about the implications if it goes under.”

Supervisor David Weiss (Buckmarsh) said that commercial operation of a solar plant in an Agricultural-Open Space-Conservation (AOC) Zoning District could be setting up direct competition for agricultural uses. “It’s already hard enough for farmers to compete with houses and land prices.”

Bullinger responded to Supervisor Byrd’s financial viability concern saying that the proposed project “will be profitable from Day One”. He also said that Cornerstone is willing to set aside the money necessary to reclaim the 1,000 solar voltaic panels in the event of financial problems.

Bullinger said that Cornerstone plans to pay Clarke County taxes “as written” and does not plan to offer a payment amount in lieu of taxes.