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A set of ordinance amendments sought by Northern Neck Electric Cooperative (NNEC) will go to public hearing when the Westmoreland Planning Commission convenes its Dec. 5 proceeding in A.T. Johnson auditorium. Power easements would hereafter be included on residential subdivision’s preliminary plat if the new amendments are approved.

New next Monday will be additional ordinance language suggested by Commission Chair John Felt during a Nov. 28 work session. The scope of the amended ordinance language would be expanded to include family subdivisions and smaller residential development projects that state law exempts from certain local regulations.
In addition to the expanded reach of the proposed set of amendments, Felt previously viewed the requested changes as an opportunity to expand the scope of local zoning rules in order to create a mechanism for exercising local government control over any off-the-grid development projects that may be proposed at some later date. The language is included in the advertised amendments.

During this week’s work session, Zoning Administrator Robert Fink explained that the intent of the action is “to require that when subdividing land, the [developer] would be responsible for the installation of electric service for the future connection of each lot in the subdivision.

“Current requirements,” he then advised, “are that the [developer] provide easements for future electrical service, but not that electrical service be installed to the subdivision nor to any lot thereof.

“Electrical service is an essential service usually provided by a public utility,” the Zoning Administrator reasoned. “A building permit will not be issued for a residence unless it will be served by electric power. Potable water and waste water disposal are other services also required in order to obtain a building permit for a residence.

“When waste or water services are to be provided by a public utility, the subdivision

ordinance requires that the service lines be installed at the cost of the [developer] at the time of subdivision. This is not true for electrical service. The subdivision ordinance does not require that the service lines be installed, and the review process does not encourage electrical connections to be made at the least cost possible nor ensure that cost to future lot owners who will be responsible for the cost of installing the services lines will [be] practical.”

Recalling Northern Neck Electric spokesperson Harry Smith’s prior comments to the Commission and their staff, Fink explained on Monday that the utility provider has encountered problems with existing zoning regulations.

“If the backbone [electrical] service is not provided at the time of subdivision, then the lot owner is responsible for the cost of extending the service to their lot and building site. “In some cases, no feasible route for service was established and service cannot be provided to the lots at a cost the lot owner could afford. The NNEC also cannot provide for compensation to the initial homeowner for costs the homeowner incurred to extend electrical service when that line extension is later used to serve additional customers.”

Costs incurred by so-called latecomers can be significant, as Smith previously advised.

“While current code provides that a utility easement must be provided at time of subdivision, the easement might not be located in the most cost effective location for construction,” Fink explained. He recalled that utility providers have cited instances in which no connections could be made.

“If the [developer] is responsible for building that service, then they have an incentive to provide a workable and cost effective route for connection.”

Fink then noted that the purchaser of a subdivision lot will pay for the electric service. That cost will either be included in the purchase price of the building lot or will be a cost incurred by a lot owner at the time of the construction.

“If the backbone service is not constructed at the time of subdivision, then the first person seeking connection may often need to pay much more than an equal portion of the cost of providing service. This may mean that none of the lots are developed because of this initial cost,” the Zoning Administrator additionally advised.

“A situation where necessary services are unavailable or impractical to provide appears contrary to public interest and contrary to the purpose of the subdivision ordinance,” he said. “Under the [proposed amendments], electric service would be treated similarly to public water and public wastewater. Electric service easements and design would be approved as part of the preliminary plat and have the approval of the utility providing the services.

“The backbone electric service would be installed or bonded for installation prior to final plat approval. The electric utility would also have a final review of the easements prior to approval and filing of the final plat.”

The expanded reach that would include off-the-grid development activity was noted during this Monday’s work session discussion. “It is possible,” Fink related, “for a residence or business to generate its own power rather than to rely on a public utility. However, this is generally not cost-effective for the owner unless connection to the power grid is unusually expensive.

“As with the provisions for wells and on-site septic systems, it may be better to provide an off-the-grid option for land divisions. Special conditions would need to be attached to such a provision.”

Copies of the proposed new ordinance that includes the off-the-grid provisions can be obtained at the Westmoreland County Land Use Office. During next week’s Commission meeting, the public will weigh in and the Commission will decide whether to issued a determination or delay issuing its finding. The hearing could result in changes to the currently proposed set of amendments. The Board of Supervisors will adopt or reject the measure at some later date.

Betsy Ficklin

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