Middleway District county commission candidates on solar farms – spiritofjefferson

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SPIRIT: What is your overall position on industrial-scale solar energy facilities operating in Jefferson County? 

Matt McKinney: It must be understood that industrial-scale solar energy production is a direct result of the Biden administration’s Inflation Reduction Act. This made large federal subsidies available to the solar industry. The fiscal impact on our community from solar energy projects is far less than the fiscal benefits that would have been accrued by the production of West Virginia coal and natural gas. The resulting construction phase of these government subsidized solar projects make a once-peaceful view unappealing.

In the context of Jefferson County, industrial-scale solar is a permitted land use by the Jefferson County zoning ordinance and the Envision 35 Comprehensive Plan. As such, if the use of solar panels meets the threshold of requirements there is no legal basis to reject it. Though I would prefer to see cattle grazing the field, land use is no longer contemplated for an existing project; it is a question of property rights.

Government regulation to hinder or abolish ongoing permitted property use in response to perceived differences in political views of how landowners are legally utilizing their property is far more harmful to individual liberty than the unsightliness of a solar array.

It should be noted that these land parcels were previously classified as Class I, agriculturally exempt and are now Class III non-owner-occupied commercial enterprises. The resultant increase in tax revenue can make a positive impact in funding our Jefferson County Farmland Protection Program and the Historical Landmarks Commission, which in turn, strive to preserve the character of our county.

Mike Mood: As I have progressed through this journey for the Jefferson County Middleway District commission seat, I have spent a great deal of time attending meetings and having conversations with residents of Jefferson County and listening to what all have said about solar compounds in Jefferson County, and it is very contentious. The farmers need to find a way to survive off of their land, and the vast majority of residents in this county do not want these solar compounds near their property adversely affecting their property values. 

This leads to a tough situation as a whole, and I believe the solution is better regulation when it comes to the change of use of property in Jefferson County and to encouraging businesses like vineyards and equestrian centers to Jefferson County to promote agritourism. The promotion of agritourism brings tax dollars to Jefferson County and provides needed income to farmers from their land. That being said, people need to be involved in what goes on in our county and our government needs to be more transparent.

Natalie Grantham Friend: As a journeyman electrician working in the solar industry, I know the advantage of solar is that electricity can be made where it is used, which is not a field. As a farmer, I know the value of topsoil. Once the topsoil is scraped off during the site work, the field will never grow another crop.  Once we run out of farmland, we run out of space to grow food. 

Working in the solar industry I know there are better ways of generating electricity while keeping our farmland. I do not want to see the beautiful rolling hills of Jefferson County covered in photovoltaic modules. Installing them on flat roofs and carports in parking lots should be considered instead. In my opinion, this project was a loss for the residents of Jefferson County.  

SPIRIT: What, if anything, should the Jefferson County Commission do now to address industrial solar facility projects developing in the county?

 Matt McKinney: The county commission is already sensitive to citizen’s concerns and has referred the solar text amendment back to the county’s planning commission. The planning commission will re-evaluate and propose any changes determined to be needed for submittal to the county commission for final approval. Since the solar text amendment is under review and open for public comment, I encourage participation from the citizenry for greater setback and landscaping requirements at the very least.

 Another matter of concern is the value of decommissioning bonds for solar projects. State law requires a decommissioning bond for each solar project to be held by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection. As a commissioner and concerned citizen, I will work with our local legislative delegation to require the value of the bonds be reassessed biannually against the contemporary rate of inflation, to alleviate any burden to the taxpayer if a site were to be abandoned.

 Mike Mood: I believe that as contentious an issue as this is, our commissioners should have their ears open to all the residents of Jefferson County. I believe that we need to put a moratorium on any solar compounds not already permitted and go back to the drawing board. Having solar compounds going in so close to the property boundaries of the farms and against peoples’ homes, streams and roadways is a horrible idea, and it devalues the neighboring properties. 

If after public input has been obtained from several meetings clearly called, with some being in the evening hours, and other avenues have been looked at, then unfortunately these projects will have to move forward. I believe the required setbacks need to be greatly increased to a minimum of 500 [feet] from property lines as well as require mature trees be planted just inside the property lines prior to the ground breaking for the solar compound. 

We also need to ensure that we have the resources and emergency services training in Jefferson County to deal with an emergency onsite, and we do not.

Natalie Grantham Friend: I would like to see the zoning ordinance changed to examine every industrial facility plan on a case-by-case basis. An emphasis needs to be placed on the community truly understanding the scope of work and how it will impact our lives. I do not think blanket rules are beneficial to the community. 

Residents did not have a full understanding of how disruptive to the landscape the site work would be for these projects, nor how quickly it would be erected. If a community wants a solar farm, I would advocate for the top soil to be left in place so that one day that field could grow a crop again.  

SPIRIT: After many discussions, public hearings, adoptions, repeals and restarts over 19 months, the current zoning ordinance revision was adopted in June 2022. What should have been done differently, if anything, during the adoption process for that zoning ordinance amendment?

Matt McKinney: Since 2019, I have had the privilege of serving the citizens of Jefferson County on the Board of Zoning Appeals and currently serve as vice chairman. As a quasi-judicial board, the BZA evaluates requests on a case-by-case basis that are outside scope of approval by the zoning administrator for a variety of circumstances. For this reason, it is inappropriate for me to opine on an existing law that I am bound to abide by on behalf of the people of Jefferson County. However, as a Jefferson County resident since birth, I can promise my level-best to find an optimum solution for both the business and residential community.

Mike Mood: We need more transparency in our government. Far too much is done in executive sessions, day time meetings and special sessions which are all designed to keep the public from knowing what is going on in our county, and it is appalling. We need to remember that we are here to represent all the residents of Jefferson County, and do what is best for all, not just a few. We need to have committee meetings as well as board meetings both during the day and in the evening, have better notification to residents, and we need to have our meetings open unless not possible due to consulting with our attorney regarding legal action and personnel issues. 

Natalie Grantham Friend: Because the solar industry is so new, it would have been nice if the community had a real understanding of the scope of work for a project of this size. The site work and how it forever changed the landscape was not explained to be considered by the community as part of the project. Too much emphasis has been put on panels, and not the changes to the ground that was to be preserved. 


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