For now, Kent solar debate eases after sweeping restrictions

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By Andrew Sharp

After months of public concern and hearings over the use of land in Kent County for solar panels, things seem to have settled down for now after Levy Court commissioners approved new restrictions that ban massive solar projects on farmland.

The amendment to an earlier ordinance, passed in September, prohibits new large-scale solar farms – those greater than 50 acres – on agricultural land. They are now confined to land zoned for general business, which cuts the potential area available from over 75,000 acres to around 1,500 acres, based on county staff estimates. That’s a reduction of about 98 percent of available land.

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The ordinance also spells out rules for smaller-scale, “community” solar projects, which are still allowed on agricultural land up to a point. The total acreage on county farmland devoted to these projects cannot exceed 1,600 acres.

As solar power projects have proliferated in the state over the past few years, concerns among some residents have mounted. Over the past year or so, news outlets reported opposition from residents and farmers to seeing Kent County’s rural land sprouting solar panels instead of crops, especially for large-scale facilities.

The big project in the crosshairs was Cedar Creek Solar in a rural area east of Smyrna. Kent County rejected its planned installation of about 260 acres of solar panels in September 2021, Delaware Online reported. before approving a new plan on Jan. 25 of this year. The paper/website quoted a member of the Farm Bureau saying farmers weren’t against solar, but wanted the projects to be limited to industrial areas.

That’s not exactly what Levy Court commissioners did, but the restriction to the general business zone will have a similar effect. General business zoning in the county is limited to small spots in urban areas. In contrast, such projects had been allowed previously as a conditional use in a large swath of land in areas zoned Agricultural Residential, as well as Agriculture Conservation within the county’s growth zone.

“I don’t think there’s anybody on Levy Court that does not want solar,” Commissioner Joanne Masten said. She pointed to the need to preserve farmland in Kent County while at the same time giving farmers flexibility to put in smaller installations to supplement their income.

Of the farmers who came to the hearings or contacted planning and zoning, none were opposed to the restrictions on utility-scale solar, she said.

“We have tried to work with every solar group,” Masten said, working to come up with a win-win for everyone.

In addition to acreage caps, community solar projects are limited to one per parcel of land so developers can’t get around the limits by packing a number of smaller facilities together, according to Sarah Keifer, director of the county’s planning office.

She said as of now, such facilities only take up a few hundred acres, so the county is not yet anywhere close to the limit.

Aside from the already-approved Cedar Creek project, Keifer said she only knew of one other utility-scale solar operation in the works. That one was rejected because the county determined the application was incomplete.

The owners of that project have appealed the decision. They will have their say at the county board of adjustment’s December meeting, according to its agenda.

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