SNOW HILL – A bill approved this week by the Worcester County Commissioners will streamline solar energy regulations for developers.
The legislation, which was amended to address concerns raised by county residents as well as commissioners last month, was created to smooth the process for developers interested in building solar arrays in Worcester County.
The main difference in what was approved this week and what was considered last month is that utility-sized solar projects will be permitted in estate, village and commercial zoning districts in addition to agricultural and industrial districts. The bill as it was first proposed only allowed those projects in agricultural and industrial areas.
“I believe that addresses the concerns I heard,” said Ed Tudor, the county’s director of development review and permitting.
Attorney Mark Cropper was a key proponent of the change. He told the commissioners during the public hearing last month that he had a client who had spent a significant amount of money working on plans for a utility-sized project that was going to be erected on a piece of land with village zoning. That, he pointed out, was permitted under the solar legislation passed in 2011. He said he didn’t see what had changed in the following three years to make solar facilities inappropriate in that zoning district.
Tudor’s staff took those comments as well as those offered by representatives of the solar industry into account in amending the bill. As passed Tuesday, the legislation redefines solar projects in Worcester County — labeling them as small, medium, large or utility — and details the necessary setbacks, acreage requirements and approval process. Large solar energy projects will require a vegetated buffer when the panels are located within 500 feet of any residential property.
Commissioner Virgil Shockley questioned why the specifics of the buffer were included in the bill for large projects but not for utility-sized projects.
Tudor explained that would give the commissioners the option of defining the buffer for those projects.
“There may be unique circumstances,” Tudor said. “It leaves it at the discretion of the commissioners.”
According to county officials, the legislation is designed to improve the lengthy approval process required for solar projects in Worcester County. Bill Badger, the county’s economic development director, said last month that several companies were interested in pursuing solar developments in Worcester County and would welcome changes to the process.