Dulles Airport Solar Project Stalls in Planning Commission Review

Fast-tracked county approvals for a plan to install a 100-megawatt solar array on undeveloped Dulles Airport property have been temporarily halted at the Loudoun County Planning Commission—although the airports authority has maintained that it doesn’t need the local government’s approval.

Dominion Energy and the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority plan the solar array on 835 acres at the airport. Their plans also include a 50-megawatt battery system and a substation for transmitting the power, some of which would be used at the airport.

Currently, that land is zoned for single-family homes, zoning that has never changed because it has never been necessary—the land is owned by the federal government and leased to MWAA, and is largely exempt from local zoning. However, the county administration contends that because the planned solar array would serve not just the airport but the power grid at-large, it falls under county zoning, citing state legislation which holds the airports authority is independent of state and local authority “in the performance and exercise of the airport-related duties and powers.”

“It is going into the grid for public use, they are subject to the zoning,” Zoning Administrator Mark Stultz told the Planning Commission at its July 26 public hearing. “If they were solely doing this as an airport-related use, they would not be subject to our zoning.”

The airports authority has written that it does not consider the project subject to local zoning. In a March 18 letter to the county Department of Planning and Zoning, airports authority Planning Department Manager Gregg Wollard compared the project to other common development at airports such as gas stations, hotels, restaurants and parking lots which are “quite common to U.S. airports and are as integral a part of everyday airport operations as those uses classified by FAA as ‘aeronautical’/’aviation’.” He wrote that the airports authority would request the federal Secretary of Transportation approve the project as an “airport purpose” under federal law.

Despite the disagreement over local zoning authority, the county has sought to fast-track the rezoning on the property to meet the proposed construction schedule. The county is working to rezone that parcel at Dulles Airport to Planned Development-General Industry, and to amend that zoning district to add ground-mounted utility-scale solar generation as a permitted use.

That also jumps ahead of an ongoing project to rewrite the county’s Zoning Ordinance, work which includes new solar array regulations but work which is not yet done. A requirement in the zoning amendment before the Planning Commission that requires at least a 500-acre lot size to build a solar array is meant to preclude solar arrays on any other Planned Development-General Industry zoned parcels in the county while the county finishes its larger Zoning Ordinance overhaul.

But the Loudoun Planning Commission bucked the fast-tracked schedule, which would have seen the application before the Board of Supervisors in September, over environmental concerns.

“If this goes through us and the supervisors, we are taking a big chance of destroying lots and lots of trees, because you’ve got to have fields cleared out to put these things,” Commissioner Ad Barnes (Leesburg) said.

“Solar is something that everyone is looking at favorably because it replaces the use of fossil fuels, which create carbon pollution, and many people know that mature trees are some of our best carbon sequestration natural solutions,” said Commissioner Jane Kirchner (Algonkian). “So it’s kind of a very weird situation here. We’re going to be wiping out all of these huge spans of mature trees to create a solar farm to provide clean energy.”

Kirchner and other commissioners also said the commission was not being given enough time to fully consider the application. And commission Chairman Forest Hayes (At Large) said it was unfair to consider that application ahead of the new Zoning Ordinance.

“Dominion and MWAA don’t want to wait for us to complete the zoning rewrite, and so when powerful people call us, we’re going to pull things out and we’re going to consider them one by one, and then we’re going to finish the rewrite that the rest of the county is waiting on according to whatever snail’s pace,” he said.

Piedmont Environmental Council Field Representative Evan McCarthy was the only person to speak during the public hearing. He reiterated the council’s environmental concerns about the project, including that much of that planned capacity could be accomplished with rooftop solar.

The Planning Commission voted 6-0-3 to send the rezoning and zoning amendment to a work session for further review, with Vice Chairman Jeff Salmon (Dulles) and commissioners Michelle Frank (Broad Run) and Mark Miller (Catoctin) absent.

The long-obsolete residential zoning at Dulles Airport hearkens back to its history. In 1958, the village of Willard, a Black neighborhood of formerly enslaved people and their descendants, was condemned to make room for the airport. All 87 Willard-area landowners were forced to give up their properties.

8 thoughts on “Dulles Airport Solar Project Stalls in Planning Commission Review

  • 2022-08-12 at 4:22 pm

    So, if the solar panels don’t pan out, can MWAA unilaterally decide to install a nuclear power plant?

  • 2022-08-12 at 5:29 pm

    The planning commission has a valid point. Only in Green Cult “logic,” is destroying wildlife habitat by plowing over forests, in favor of chinese slave labor made, toxin laden, solar panels a great idea.

  • 2022-08-12 at 7:18 pm

    Like everywhere else in the USA federal land is exempt from local and state zoning laws. They may ask for our opinion and suggestions but they can do whatever they want without our approval. Figures local bureaucrats want to try to regulate everything. Good luck with that.

  • 2022-08-12 at 7:46 pm

    I hope the residents with kids in HS and Middle School take this as a learning opportunity. The battle is about power, not electric power but the power to control things.

    At no point is the concern of the people an issue. At no point is responsible oversight if tax dollars the issue. The issue is who has the power, the feeders government, the local government or a sudo-government agency. This isn’t an R vs D issue but a Gov vs. Gov issue where the people are just ignored.

  • 2022-08-12 at 10:23 pm

    No doubt the BOS assumes building a solar array means a developer can’t someday put houses there…and the BOS is all about building ever more houses. Please retire this entire board. They have lost the thread.

  • 2022-08-13 at 8:05 am

    Just another example of local government zoning staff trying to exercise power they don’t have. Apparently, the local Zoning Administrator has the power to preempt federal preemption.

  • 2022-08-16 at 12:46 pm

    As usual, the PEC picks things over people. No electricity for those EVs they want to mandate for all.

  • 2022-08-16 at 2:17 pm

    They call themselves a “planning” commission…ever look at the result of their expertise in planning?

    – data center next to the metro exit
    – houses right in the flight paths of Dulles
    – data centers right in the middle of residential areas (wouldn’t it have made great sense to put the data centers around the airport?)
    – large power lines criss-crossing the county to feed the wily-nilly placed data centers–ruining residential views and putting thousands in the EMT fields while in their homes.
    – roads to nowhere
    – shopping centers that are almost impossible to exit

    and on and on… so let’s not give them too much credit for planning anything other than a quality-of-life-be-damned giveaway to developers.

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