User-friendly tool can help localities make informed land use and development decisions

A new, free digital tool can give local leaders access to the information they need to make wise decisions regarding land use and development throughout Virginia.

The Virginia Land & Energy Navigator incorporates layers of geographic information data related to farmland, forests, utility infrastructure, conservation easements, disturbed lands and more, to support land use planning and decision making at the local level. The tool is now live, allowing users to see the precise locations of various resources and infrastructure through an intuitive interface.

The Virginia General Assembly recognized the need for data resources to help localities make informed land use planning decisions. Section 3 of HB 894 required a report detailing the cost and potential location for a map or repository of prime farmland, intended to further assist in siting determinations for projects like solar energy collection. An HB 894 work group exceeded that directive by creating VaLEN—a functional resource.

There is concern among the agricultural community that large-scale solar buildouts may permanently hinder future use of prime farmlands and forever alter Virginia’s rural landscape. VaLEN could help local leaders make the best siting decisions for those utility-scale solar projects.

“This project will increase every locality’s ability to make complex land use decisions with access to some groundbreaking information all under one source that has been practically impossible to compare before the impressive work done by Virginia Cooperative Extension and stakeholders,” said HB 894 work group member Zach Jacobs, a legislative specialist for Virginia Farm Bureau Federation.

Led by Extension and funded by Dominion Energy, VaLEN represents a collaborative effort of state and federal agencies, nonprofit organizations and local government and industry working to balance renewable energy goals in the context of broader conservation and economic development interests.

“I personally find that interdisciplinary, collaborative teams bring different perspectives and result in higher-quality, more holistic solutions to complex issues,” said Dan Goerlich, Extension associate director of economy, communities and food. “This resource can support local decision making based on local needs and goals, rather than prescribe outcomes per se. The work group members also felt like providing access to the highest quality information available, in a manner that is easy to access and understand, would lead to enhanced decision making and associated outcomes.”

For example, he added, local leadership could use VaLEN to confirm the location of their highest-quality farm and forest land, so those areas are more likely to remain in food and fiber production.

“Down the road, our hope is that VaLEN helps contribute to that balance between economic development and natural resource conservation that we all seek,” Goerlich said.

Visit to use the tool and learn more.

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