The Loudoun County Planning Commission last week recommended the Board of Supervisors rezone land at Dulles International Airport for industrial uses, but still require the airport and Dominion Energy to apply to the county for permission on their plans for a large-scale solar farm there.
Meanwhile the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which leases the land from the federal government, maintains the solar farm is exempt from the oversights of county zoning. Under state law, the airports authority is exempt from local control for airport-related uses. They argue the solar farm is still an airport use; county zoning officials and attorneys argue that because it will serve Dominion’s power grid generally, and not just the airport, it falls under local authority.
To accommodate the new 835-acre, 100-megawatt solar array, county staff members had launched a plan to fast-track both a rezoning on the land—still zoned for low-density residential development, in a holdover from the land’s pre-airport rural residential history—and to permit solar facilities by-right in its new industrial zoning district. That also included a 500-acre minimum lot size to allow by-right solar facilities, which would exclude every other parcel in the county currently under that zoning.
For by-right uses, landowners need only administrative permits to build. Currently in that zoning district, solar facilities are permitted with a special exception, a legislative application that must be approved by the Board of Supervisors.
Concerns over losing the forested areas of the airport pushed planning commissioners to recommend the Board of Supervisors approve the rezoning, but not permit the solar array by-right, in hopes that the county would be able to extract more environmental protections such as a commitment to reforesting the area after the solar array reaches the end of its usable life.
The county does not have the authority to require reforestation through local ordinances, county zoning and legal staff advised. But applicants for special exceptions typically sign proffer agreements as a condition of approval, outlining specific commitments to offset the impact of their proposed development such as new infrastructure and environmental protections.
“We all now know that trees are without a doubt the best carbon-capture technology in the world,” said Commissioner Jane Kirchner (Algonkian). “As we are grappling with ways to solve our climate crisis, it’s key that we look at things a little bit differently. Mature trees particularly serve as a great natural solution to sequester carbon in our atmosphere. It seems to me that this is really not set up in a way that’s going to serve our community or our people very well.”
Commissioner Eric Combs (Ashburn) raised the idea of requiring Dominion or the airport to reforest the area after the solar array is retired; other commissions agreed.
“To me, given the fact that I can only assume how large a budget is associated with this project, that’s a rounding error for them to commit to reforest that area whenever they decommission this,” said Commission Chairman Forest Hayes (At-Large).
But not all members agreed. Commissioner Mark Miller (Catoctin) pointed out the airports authority could likely cut down those trees on its own authority, separate from any development application, and that many of those areas will be cleared anyway if the airport fulfils its plans to build a fifth runway in the area. Commissioner John Merrithew (Sterling) agreed.
“This is a facility that our plans have continually supported allowing maximum utilization of the area and maximum development of the airport,” Merrithew said. “…I think this has benefits that will benefit the county and the airport, and I think we should support the airport as our policies recommend.”
Commissioners voted 6-2-1 to recommend county supervisors deny allowing solar facilities by-right in the industrial district, with Miller and Merrithew opposed and Commissioner Jeff Salmon (Dulles) absent.
All commissioners agreed the residential zoning makes no sense for the area, but not all agreed the proposed Planned Development-General Industrial zoning was the right fit.
“Most of us, when we realized this was zoned R-2, our eyebrows shot up and we said ‘what?’’ said Commissioner Michelle Frank (Broad Run). “So I think that just for no other reason than to clean that up, [this] makes a lot of sense.”
Commissioners voted 6-2-1 to recommend county supervisors rezone the land to Planned Development-General Industrial, with Kirchner and Commissioner Ad Barnes (Leesburg) opposed and Salmon absent.