Dulles Airport solar project stalled in planning commission review

Fast-track county approvals for a plan to install a 100-megawatt solar panel on undeveloped Dulles Airport property have been temporarily halted by the Loudoun County Planning Commission, although the airport authority maintained that she did not need local government approval.

Dominion Energy and the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority are planning the solar array on 835 acres at the airport. Their plans also include a 50 megawatt battery system and a substation to transmit electricity, part of which would be used at the airport.

Currently, this land is zoned for single family homes, zoning that has never changed because it was never needed – the land is federally owned and leased to the MWAA, and is largely exempt from local zoning. However, the county administration argues that because the planned solar array would serve not just the airport but the power grid as a whole, it falls under county zoning, citing state law which states that the airport authority is independent of state and local authority “in the performance and exercise of airport-related functions and powers.

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

The airport authority wrote that it does not consider the project subject to local zoning. In a March 18 letter to the county’s planning and zoning department, Gregg Wollard, head of the airport authority’s planning department, compared the project to other common airport developments such as stations -service, hotels, restaurants, and parking lots that are “fairly common at US airports and are an integral part of daily airport operations on a par with uses classified by the FAA as ‘aeronautical’/’aviation’.” He said writes that the airport authority would ask the federal secretary of transportation to approve the project as an “airport target” under federal law.

Despite disagreement over the local zoning authority, the county sought to expedite rezoning on the property to meet the proposed construction schedule. The county is working to rezone this parcel of Dulles Airport under Planned Development – General Industry, and to amend this zoning district to add utility scale solar generation to the ground as a permitted use.

It also comes ahead of an ongoing project to rewrite the county’s zoning ordinance, work that includes new solar panel regulations, but work that is not yet complete. 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 intended to exclude solar arrays on any other planned development-general-industry plot in the county during as the county completes its largest zoning ordinance review.

But the Loudoun Planning Commission resisted the accelerated timetable, which would have seen the application before the supervisory board in September, on environmental grounds.

“If it goes through us and the supervisors, we take a big risk of destroying a lot of trees, because you have to have the fields cleared to put these things in,” Commissioner Ad Barnes (Leesburg) said.

“Solar power is something that everyone looks upon favorably because it replaces the use of fossil fuels, which create carbon pollution, and many people know that mature trees are among our best natural solutions for sequestering carbon. carbon,” said Commissioner Jane Kirchner (Algonquin). “So it’s a very strange situation here. We’re going to wipe out all these huge expanses of mature trees to create a solar farm that will provide clean energy.”

Kirchner and other commissioners also said the commission did not have enough time to fully consider the request. And commission chairman Forest Hayes (At Large) said it was unfair to consider this application ahead of the new zoning ordinance.

“Dominion and MWAA don’t want to wait for us to finish 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’ll finish the rewrite than the rest county waits at snail’s pace,” he said.

Piedmont Environmental Council field representative Evan McCarthy was the only person to speak at the public hearing. He reiterated the council’s environmental concerns about the project, including that much of this planned capacity could be achieved with rooftop solar.

The Planning Commission voted 6-0-3 to send the rezoning and zoning amendment to a working session for further consideration, in the absence of Vice Chairman Jeff Salmon (Dulles) and Commissioners Michelle Frank (Broad Run) and Mark Miller (Catoctin).

Dulles Airport’s long-obsolete residential zoning is a reminder of its history. In 1958, the village of Willard, a black neighborhood of former slaves and their descendants, was condemned to make way for the airport. All 87 landowners in the Willard area were forced to abandon their properties.

Aurora J. William