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Commissioners hear concern over solar ordinance, call for public workshop
July 24, 2020

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CHARLES TOWN - Members of the Jefferson County Commission heard concerns during their regularly scheduled meeting on Thursday, over a proposed zoning ordinance amendment that will allow solar farms in Jefferson County.

In addition to some members of the public who called in to comment on the amendment, attorney Kathy Santa Barbara was on the agenda representing several residents in the county who questioned the legality of how the amendment was proceeding.

The ordinance, ZTA 19-03, changes rezoning in eight districts, in which solar energy facilities would be allowed. Other changes including definitions and requirements, as well as a decommissioning plan for solar farms.

According to Santa Barbara, her clients have issues with the legality of noticing of the content of the amendments. She requested the JCC return the draft back to the planning commission, so that body could garner input at a public hearing.

Santa Barbara argued that a public hearing was announced, but was then held virtually, rather than in-person, without proper notice. She also alleged the planning commission, after changing the physical hearing to a virtual one without notice, agreed to accept public comment for 10 days, but did not notify the public of that decision until five days into that period.

In addition to all of the questions regarding proper notice of public hearings and the allowance of public input, Santa Barbara also contended the planning commission voted to add the residential growth district to the districts where solar farms would be allowed as a permitted use, without any input from the public at all.

"There was no meaningful public input from anyone in that zoning district, since it had never been publicly noticed," Santa Barbara said.

The addition of the residential growth district drew some concern among commissioners, so much so that JCC President Jane Tabb moved to send the amendments back to the planning commission.

Commissioner Ralph Lorenzetti agreed with Tabb in the vote to send it back to the planning commission.

"People are just starting to realize this solar thing," Lorenzetti said. "It needs to go back to the planning commission to get worked out a bit more before it comes to us."

JCC attorney Nathan Cochran reminded the group they were not scheduled to vote an approval of the text amendments.

"You are not passing this tonight, you can hold a public hearing," Cochran said.

Cochran suggested the commissioners hold a public hearing or workshop to gather additional input on the text amendment. He added that he felt it would be inappropriate to send the draft back to the planning commission.

Commissioner Josh Compton agreed, saying he preferred having a public meeting at the commission level to "get our own input."

The vote to send back to the planning commission failed, 2-3. The commission then passed the motion to hold their own public workshop on the issue, at a yet-to-be-determined date.

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