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Energy Environment Insider Only Kent County News

Kent proposes zoning change for large solar projects

Katie Tabeling

The Kent County Levy Court is scheduled to make a decision on an ordinance that would redefine where large-scale solar projects could be located in the county at the end of this month. | DBT PHOTO BY KATIE TABELING

DOVER — After a year of debate on potential mega-sized solar projects on Kent County farmland, county officials have drafted an ordinance that would restrict such projects to only one zoning district with 1,960 acres of land.

The proposed ordinance would remove utility-scale solar facilities — or projects that would sell energy they generate into the power grid — out of the Agricultural Conservation (AC) and Agricultural Residential (AR) zones, leaving only the Business General (BG) district for potential sites. Even there, solar projects would be by conditional use only, meaning they would have to go through approval processes.

Meanwhile, setback requirements will further lower the potentially available land in the BG district to 1,224 acres, or less than 0.3% percent of all Kent County land. It would also concentrate the large scale solar projects along U.S. Route 13 and Delaware Route 1, as a bulk of the BG zone is along those highways and near towns.

Until this proposal, all solar projects have been regulated in all three districts.

“The thing we have to consider is finality. We need to draw a line and stick with it and move on,” County Commissioner Eric Buckson said during an Aug. 11 meeting.

The drafted ordinance would also only allow one community solar facility — or smaller projects that serve multiple customers who share the output of the generator — per parcel. Community solar facilities are limited to 50 acres in size, and are allowed in the AC, AR and BG zones under conditional use. The ordinance the Kent County commissioners are considering will also include an expiration date for these projects.

The proposed ordinance comes nearly a year after the project that started it all came before Kent County officials and kicked off a heated debate about land use and farming. In September 2021, Freepoint Solar proposed building a 230,000 panel array on farmland in Smyrna called Cedar Creek Solar. 

It would have been 10 times the size of Delaware’s current largest solar farm. Freepoint Solar also signed a deal with Amazon to sell more than half the power it generated to the e-commerce giant.

But as the solar project made its way through the county planning process, it kicked off a fiery debate among farmers who were concerned about developers buying the farm that runs through Delaware’s smallest county for solar arrays.

While Cedar Creek Solar was ultimately approved by the Kent County commissioners earlier this year, the project is currently tied up in litigation with an adjacent property owner.

But still, that left the Levy Court to answer residents’ and farmers’ concerns about where to site solar projects, including mega projects from developers looking to capitalize on Delaware’s requirements for renewable energy.

“It’s important that we preserve the conservation and residential agriculture development, and that it’s important that we’re responsible with community solar development,” said Tricia Hurd Nash, who has advocated against large solar developments on farms ever since the Cedar Creek project was unveiled, during an Aug. 11 hearing before the commissioners.

“There is a big chasm of what if someone from an industry buys up land in the agricultural residential area and wants to put a factory there,” Nash added. “Utility-scale solar is the exact same thing. It’s an industrial use on agricultural land. It’s that simple.”

In response, commissioners enacted a moratorium on solar projects on March 8 to slow down potential projects while they debated the issue. In April, the commissioners eventually passed a new ordinance that delineated between smaller projects and large ones that would attract major developers. That ordinance created the utility and community solar definitions.

But still, commissioners were under pressure to do more in staving off developers’ appetite in buying farmland for solar projects while it worked on a stronger ordinance. The levy court extended the moratorium in August, which retroactively covered the previous three months —  while the county staff worked on identifying where the utility solar projects could go. During that meeting, the commissioners indicated they were ready to reach a more final conclusion to the land use issue.

“We did it for three months, and we realized three months wasn’t enough,” Commissioner Alan Angel said during Aug. 11 meeting. “For me, it’s about doing what’s right and it’s about moving the process to the end.”

The moratorium expired on Sept. 8.

Meanwhile, Kent County officials are also working on redefining community solar, as the ordinance passed in March does not allow for electric co-op projects.

The Levy Court scheduled for a public hearing on the ordinance that would remove utility-scale solar projects from AR and AC zones on Sept. 27. The commissioners are expected to make a final decision on that date.

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