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Developer delays bid for 7 Bridges solar array

SoVaNow.com / February 12, 2020
The 7 Bridges solar facility proposed for the northwestern corner of Mecklenburg County has been put on hold as developers revisit plans for the project.

Boston-based Longroad Energy has been seeking a special exception permit from the county to erect a 114 megawatt solar facility on 942 acres of land northwest of Chase City near Lunenburg county line. The project was set for a hearing before the Mecklenburg County Planning Commission on Thursday, Feb. 27, a first step in garnering county approval for this facility.

On Friday, Matt Levine, development director for Longroad Energy, asked County Zoning Administrator Robert Hendrick to remove the company’s permit application from the hearing agenda.

It is the fifth utility-scale solar farm to seek permission to locate in Mecklenburg County. Three near Chase City — Grasshopper, Bluestone Farms and Otter Creek — were approved in 2017 and 2018. A fourth project, Ladybug in Bracey, was rejected last year.

Levine shared the news with county supervisors on Monday during the monthly meeting of the board. “We want to take time to reassess the layout [of the proposed utility] and take more time to get constituent input,” he explained.

Levine said the company was still going ahead with a planned meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 11 for Chase City residents and other interested parties to learn more about the project, offer input, and obtain answers to their questions.

“We are open to hearing feedback and we are trying to make this work for the county,” he explained.

The decision to pull the permit request came after Levine attended an informal meeting in Chase City on Saturday, Feb. 1 arranged by South Hill attorney John Janson. Approximately 25 area residents used the forum to share their thoughts and concerns about the 7 Bridges project, though Janson’s stated purpose for the meeting was to find allies who would stand with him in opposition to the solar facility.

While Levine did not say that meeting was the reason Longroad Energy chose to re-evaluate its planned facility, he heard more than one resident express frustration with the lack of information forthcoming from project developers.

He also heard Janson encourage those at the meeting to drive past the two solar projects currently under construction — one on Spanish Grove Road and the other near the intersection of Highways 47 and 49 near Chase City — to see their impact on the viewshed and the roadways.

According to Janson, the land is being deforested and the roads are covered with mud.

All three county-approved solar projects are located near Chase City. Grasshopper is an 80 MW utility scale facility located on 950 acres at the corner of Highways 47 and 49. It is owned by Dominion Power. The two other sites are both on Spanish Grove Road. Bluestone Farm is a 50 MW facility on 334 acres and Otter Creek is a 60 MW facility on 682 acres.

According to the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) website, only Grasshopper and Bluestone have been authorized to begin construction. Otter Creek has not been issued a permit by DEQ known as a PBR (Permit by Rule).

On Monday, Levine told supervisors, “We are listening. We believe this project is well sited, and can fit within the County’s Comprehensive Plan, but we want to differentiate ourselves from Grasshopper and those others.” He also described the 7 Bridges project as “too much, too soon.”

Levine acknowledges that the project, as currently proposed, does not on its face appear to fit within the guidelines for solar farms that the county added into its comprehensive plan in 2017.

These guidelines are suggestions, not mandates, but they offer insight into ways developers should try to mitigate the impact these solar facilities have on existing land use patterns. The plan recommends that solar farms:

» As much as possible, be located on brownfields or near existing industrial uses, but not within growth boundaries of a town.

» Be located adjacent to or in close proximity to existing electric transmission lines.

» Avoid or minimize impact to prime farmland or farmlands of stateside importance as defined by the USDA.

» Be located outside of any identified growth boundary and not within one mile of a town boundary.

» Be located outside of the viewshed of any scenic, cultural, or recreational resource.

» Be less than 500 acres in size.

» Not be located within two miles of another approved or constructed utility-scale solar facility.

The 7 Bridges property adjoins the Grasshopper site and the footprint for the facility is more than 500 acres. Levine says that fewer than 500 of the 2,500 leased acres will be covered with solar panels and the fenced area around the solar field will be less than 1,000 acres, leaving more than 1,500 acres for existing timber.

Because the project will be constructed in the middle of a forest — the 2,500 acre site has been used to grow timber for several years — it will be located outside of passersby’s view. While the property sits next to the Meherrin River, that part of the river is not a scenic resource. Even so, the project plans on file with the county show the solar panels setback approximately 1,000 feet from the Meherrin.

According to the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, the South Meherrin River, which forms Mecklenburg County’s northern border, was never designated a scenic waterway. A study was done in 2012-2013 by the Department for the purpose of seeking “Scenic River” status, but there is no indication that the Virginia General Assembly ever acted on the request. Instead the Meherrin River received a scenic river designation from the Scenic Virginia organization, a private non-profit group. This is not an official designation.

To stave off concerns from supervisors and others about potential lost revenues to the county because of its limited ability to tax solar facilities, Levine said Longroad would agree to a revenue share of up to $1,400 per megawatt on some solar photovoltaic projects, which would yield considerably more revenue to the county treasury. Under current state law, large-scale solar generation facilities receive an 80 percent exemption on local property taxes.

For now, Levine said Longroad Energy will take time to reassess the layout of its planned solar array, gain further constituent input and come back to the county “with an even better plan.”

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