Supervisors keep orbiting solar ordinance, but can’t land on agreement amid accusations

solar panels

By Randy Arrington, publisher

LURAY, Feb. 3 — Last night’s work session was not one of the finer moments of the Page County Board of Supervisors. The evening was filled with confusion, misunderstanding, accusations, perceived deception and borderline incompetence.

After more than two years of discussion, public hearings, approval by the planning commission, $50,000 spent on a consultant, and seemingly overwhelming support from a vocal group of citizens closely following the process … only two supervisors supported the culmination of that work. A motion by District 1 Supervisor Keith Guzy to approve the proposed solar ordinance, as submitted by the Page County Planning Commission, failed by a 2-to-4 vote.

“We met for a year-and-a half on one application…this ordinance represents two-and-a-half years of work, and it’s already cost our taxpayers $50,000,” Guzy said during Tuesday’s meeting. “I can’t ask our taxpayers to spend any more money on an ordinance for something that may or may not ever happen.”

So, it seems the supervisors will be going back to square one on the solar ordinance — despite all the time and money spent — because three members of the board are working hard to please one particular special interest, and more than one member seems to be consistently confused about the entire process.

While the board plans to “work from” the solar ordinance that’s on the table, numerous changes have been proposed — a total of 48 changes in the latest version submitted by District 5 supervisor Jeff Vaughan. None of those changes have been shared with the public — most of the board isn’t even aware of some of the changes (but more on that later).

However, the one key change under consideration revolves around the key issue of the entire ordinance from the beginning of the permit application process in 2018 — limits on the size of a utility-scale solar farm. While some of the changes proposed simply deal with language or definitions for various terms in the proposed ordinance, the size of a utility-scale solar operation is limited to 200 acres, as the proposed ordinance currently reads. Another proposed version of the solar ordinance calls for that limit to be increased to 400 acres, and the one submitted by Vaughan calls for up to 450 acres.

During Tuesday’s meeting, Vaughan suggested a second “committee” meeting be held on the issue with county staff to “get these issues resolved and bring it back” to the full board for consideration. Vaughan and District 2 supervisor Allen Louderback attended the first such “committee” meeting in late January, in which little seemed to get accomplished.

“The committee was set up to review the [solar ordinance] because not everyone was happy about what came out of the planning commission,” County Administrator Amity Moler told supervisors on Tuesday. When a board member asked about what specific changes were made, Moler responded, “We never got that far.”

Moler went on to state that she received “no direction” from the supervisors at the meeting.

The clear purpose behind the “committee” meetings is to provide Vaughan with a means to increase the acreage limit for utility-scale solar farms — something being pushed by a local landowner and his attorney, as well as solar developer Urban Grid. The solar company filed a Special Use Permit more than two years ago with the county for a solar farm project dubbed “Cape Solar” that would have spread out over more than 500 acres. 

That application was denied by the board, which then launched an effort to create a solar ordinance that would provide guidelines for future applicants. The task was handed to the planning commission, who then formed a special solar ordinance subcommittee. The group was crowded with many members and many concerns, and fought hard to make any headway. After surmising that the process was potentially quagmired, the county contracted the professional services of The Berkely Group, which has already billed the county in excess of $50,000 for work on the solar ordinance and addressing other concerns in the county’s zoning ordinance.

A sad aspect to these proceedings is that now, more than a year after the solar ordinance process began, some members of the board are thinking the county would have been better off just sticking with the Special Use Permit process, rather than trying to create a new ordinance.

“It takes away some of your negotiating power for proffers, etc,” the county attorney told supervisors on Tuesday. The attorney added that by creating a solar ordinance, the county was making solar farms, in effect, by-right uses of land in designated zones. What that means is, if an applicant submits an SUP for a solar farm and then meets all of the requirements in the ordinance, the board has little grounds to deny that application — and if they did, it would certainly open the county up to litigation by the developer.

On the other hand, if the county sticks with the SUP process, it gives more flexibility to establish restrictions on a specific application. Part of the problem with the entire process has been its narrow focus, with both sides basing their views around the Cape Solar project.

“The problem I have is, this entire document is being drafted to create the possibility of a single project,” said board Chairman Morgan Phenix, repeating a sentiment he has made at previous meetings. 

But beyond the slow-natured quagmire of the process (government is often like that), and beyond the apparent special effort to please certain business interests over the will of the people — it was even more unnerving to listen to the Zoom broadcast of Tuesday night’s work session and hear how thick the confusion and misunderstanding hung in the air.

“I’ve just been under a misunderstanding of what a [Special Use Permit] is,” Phenix said at one point.

Really? After more than two years… of discussing a special use permit… and an ordinance built around that special use permit? Not to mention all of the other SUP applications that have come before the board that have been previously acted on. The lack of understanding about special use permits, variances and the general process — to include pros and cons — of various land use decisions was a bit deflating to witness, even if only via an audio feed.

A portion of Tuesday night’s discussion revolved around whether future solar farm applications should be dealt with through the SUP process or through an ordinance. The county attorney tried to explain to the supervisors that even if the county adopts a solar ordinance that gives future applicants guidelines to go by, it does not prevent a developer from applying for a variance to the ordinance — such as increasing the allowed acreage for a utility-scale solar farm. 

“I’m not familiar with a variance,” Phenix stated. “I’m not even sure I know what a variance is.”

And to top it off, it didn’t even seem like some members of the board were very familiar with the document they were discussing and voting on — or even which document they were discussing and voting on.

“I hope everyone has read this document,” exclaimed an exasperated Guzy at one point.

Obviously, they had not. Answers to several questions posed by supervisors to legal counsel were contained directly in the document, which was pointed out several times.

“Let’s make sure we’re working on the same draft,” Phenix mused at the end of Tuesday night’s meeting. “I have been confused by the different copies. I’ve been juggling those.”

Now that the solar ordinance approved, 9-1, by the planning commission has been voted down by the board, one of the supervisors that voted “No” must make a motion to bring the same ordinance back (as amended) for another vote.

While District 3 supervisor Mark Stroupe and Phenix touted the environmental need for large-scale solar facilities to fight climate change, others like Louderback saw the issue as more local than global.

“If we’re going to be in the solar industry, then that number won’t work,” Phenix said. “To put in a 200-acre facility is a spit in the water.”

“I commend you for your concern about the world, but we are here to protect the interests of our citizens right here,” Louderback responded. He listed concerns about future disposal of solar panels and the good faith of developers to do the right thing.

“It’s our responsibility to look after the people in this county,” he added.

District 4 supervisor Larry Foltz, Stroupe and Vaughan added little to the discussion on Tuesday night, but each quickly voted to kill the solar ordinance supported by so many. Phenix seemed consistently confused, whether it was which copy of the document someone was referring to, or the role of an SUP, or the meaning and purpose of a variance. Yet, he also voted to deny the ordinance based on concerns over definitions of terms and whether an ordinance was even needed at all (versus the SUP process).

Louderback was the only board member to support Guzy’s motion.

While we acknowledge that Guzy often dominates discussions at nearly every meeting — on nearly every issue — we empathize on this occasion with his logical and rational approach, and his plight at Tuesday night’s work session dealing with under-informed peers who were taking a narrow view of a large issue.

And we thoroughly agree with the sentiments he expressed.

“We could spend another two years on it, and someone could still apply for a variance,” said Guzy. Both he and the county attorney seemed to fail in trying to explain the role and implications of land use ordinances, special use permits and variances — and keep in mind, this group of elected officials are the ones who make decisions for all of us…on land use ordinances, special use permits and variances.

“I think you’re losing a lot of confidence [by] the public…if six people in a room can’t read a document and make suggestions,” Guzy stated. “The citizens have had numerous complaints about the process.”

Those complaints have included accusations of conflicts of interest by members of the board with regard to the solar ordinance, trying to “ram through” an ordinance to please a single developer or a single landowner, and simply stumbling through the process at a cost of both time and money.

Recent developments in the county’s solar ordinance saga pose some serious questions: Was the whole process necessary? If so, then why baulk at the final product? And why go through nearly three years of turmoil if you’re going to simply give the applicant what they wanted in the first place?

“We are not doing anything ‘outside the box’ more than other municipalities” by creating a solar ordinance, stated Guzy, noting the same discussions taking place across the state and the country. “I am open to suggestions and discussion, but I am not going to vote on the Urban Grid document.”

“The only thing we’ve seen amending the ordinance has been submitted by [the landowner’s attorney],” Louderback said. “There have been two amendments…one increasing it from 200 to 400 acres, and the one Jeff submitted increased it to 450.”

“Why to that level?”

Vaughan never answered.

And although anyone who has followed the solar saga already knows the answer to that question, it would be nice to hear it stated publicly by our elected officials.

That would be much better than closed-door meetings with less than a quorum of supervisors making changes to a proposed ordinance that are not being shared with the public based on an effort to please a narrow set of interests.

The board of supervisors is expected to discuss the issue again at its Feb.16 meeting. It will be interesting to see what changes will be made in the final version of the solar ordinance that will likely come to another vote in two weeks.

Odds are, it will have something to do with acreage.

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