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Developer trims 7 Bridges solar facility acreage / December 23, 2020

Ten months after Boston-based Longroad Energy first sought a permit to erect a 114-megawatt solar facility in the northwestern corner of Mecklenburg County, the company has trimmed the project acreage and now plans to move forward with the permitting process, say company officials.

If approved, the 7 Bridges generation facility would become the largest photovoltaic solar array to be permitted by Mecklenburg County thus far.

Michael Thomas, a consultant with MaguireWoods Consulting, said Friday that in the next few days Longroad Energy will file its request for a special exception permit to build the utility-scale solar facility on 942 acres of forested land near Chase City and the Lunenburg-Mecklenburg county line.

According to County Zoning Administrator Robert Hendrick, as of Monday, no such application has been filed with his office and he’s had no conversations with anyone from Longroad Energy about the project in the past few months.

On Thursday, company officials including Longroad Energy Chief Development Officer Matt Kearns and Director of Natural Resources Deron Lawrence held a Zoom call meeting with nearby property owners to share their revised plans for the solar facility.

As explained at Thursday’s virtual open house, the new site plan increases the setbacks for 7 Bridges to 6,400 feet (more than a mile) from the existing Grasshopper solar field, as well as 400 feet from the Meherrin River and 2.5 miles from Chase City corporate limits. The setback distance from scenic Scott’s Crossroads is no less than 100 feet and it is more than 400 feet in most locations, and 150 feet or more will separate the solar array from other property lines.

The footprint of the solar field “has been tightened,” according to Kearns. However, the company has not reduced the megawatts that will be produced by the facility.

Kearns said the message Longroad Energy hopes people will hear is that “we listened to their earlier concerns and did our best to alleviate them.” He also stressed that the project is “back in the woods,” and will not be visible to drivers traveling along Scott’s Crossroads. There are plans to install additional buffering plants in the one area where existing tree coverage may not be adequate.

The company presented information Thursday that indicates a siting plan for the revised 7 Bridges project — with changes shown from the original — was sent to Mecklenburg County in October. Again, Hendrick said he’s seen no such document, though he acknowledged it could have been sent directly to the County Attorney Russell Slayton as it is, in Hendrick’s words, “a legal document.”

Typically, the first step in the approval of a utility-scale solar facility is an application for a 2232 review a hearing before the Mecklenburg County Planning Commission to determine the compatibility of the proposed utility project with the county’s comprehensive plan. That application would be filed with the County Zoning Administrator.

Hendrick said it is possible that officials from Longroad Energy are negotiating directly with county officials under a new law that went into effect July 1. That state law allows counties to forego the 2232 review process “by right” or with projects that are located in an opportunity zone (a low-income census tract area eligible for certain tax benefits under federal law). As part of that law, counties are free to enter into mutually agreeable solar field siting agreements with conditions for the future mitigation of the project, additional financial compensation, or assistance in the deployment of broadband.

Kearns said the 7 Bridges siting plan as proposed by Longroad was developed by studying the best and worst practices of solar projects currently under development in the county. The updated siting plan calls for the company to:

» preserve existing forest within the setback, where possible to provide a mature screen

» underplant the panels with ground cover preferred by quail and pollinators

» install a trackout system to remove sediment, mud, and dirt off trucks and heavy equipment leaving the job site

» alleviate traffic logjams and reduce traffic by at least 20 percent at the construction site, by shuttling workers to and from the property

» implement a traffic pattern with at least two ingress and egress points so not all construction traffic flows to or from the site from one direction

» pay a revenue share of $147,000 per year — this is less than Mecklenburg County expects to collect under a newly-passed ordinance that calls for large-scale solar projects to pay a revenue share of $1,400 per megawatt per year. The estimated revenue share for 7 Bridges under that ordinance would be $159,600 per year.

» work with the county to acquire additional funding for broadband expansion and public WiFi by helping Mecklenburg leverage more Virginia Telecommunications Initiative (VATI) dollars.

One issue not addressed by Longroad’s recent presentation is what obligation the company will have to install suitable buffering should the current property owner chose to sell the timber on his land, since Longroard Energy only leases the property.

The project, if approved, would be built in the middle of a 2,500-acre forest of mature trees. The current plan calls for the project to be hidden from view of passersby on Scotts Crossroad by leaving these trees in place.

Also going unaddressed were the company’s plans for decommissioning the project at the end of its 35-year lifespan. Kearns did not rule out the possibility the property would continue as a solar field with new and updated solar panels installed.

Kearns said there are two main reasons solar companies such as Longroad are attracted to Southside Virginia and Mecklenburg County. Foremost is the cost of land. When compared to other locations within the same electricity market (PJM interconnection), land costs in Mecklenburg County are more affordable.

Particularly in the Chase City area, there is proximity to transmission lines with available capacity. Kearns says this is a key attribute of successful, low-cost solar power projects.

He also sees “great financial benefits” that a utility-scale solar project brings to local communities, compared to current uses of the land — all without straining municipal resources. The financial benefits include construction jobs, taxes from meals and lodging, sales tax revenues from purchases made by workers during construction.

In the presentation to homeowners on Thursday, Longroad officials also claimed that “when sited and developed correctly, solar facilities can provide environmental benefits through the use of perennial ground cover, growth of pollinator habitats, avoiding wetland impacts, and creating wildlife corridors.”

Still, Longroad officials could face an uphill battle with the County Planning Commission if they are unable to enter into a siting agreement directly with the county or demonstrate the proposed project fall squarely within Mecklenburg’s Comprehensive Plan, approved in 2017.

In February, less than two weeks prior to a hearing on the company’s original proposal before the Mecklenburg County Planning Commission, Matt Levine, then-development director for Longroad Energy, asked Hendrick to remove the company’s permit application from the hearing agenda.

The request followed an informal meeting at which several adjoining property owners and others living in the Chase City area shared a number of concerns, including the lack of transparency about the project, its size and impact on local traffic, and disruption of the area’s rural character.

Since then, Kearns said the company has been refining its site plan and meeting with affected property owners.

“We’ve gone back to those [property owners] in proximity and said, ‘we heard you and here’s our response,’” Kearns said.

Longroad officials have also been collaborating with Southside Virginia Community College on a workforce development program to help create a pool of qualified solar construction workers.

7 Bridges is the fifth utility-scale solar farm to seek permission to locate in Mecklenburg County. Three others 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.

Grasshopper, owned by Dominion Energy, is an 80 MW utility scale facility located on 950 acres at the corner of Highways 47 and 49. The two other sites are both located on Spanish Grove Road. Bluestone Farm is a 60 MW facility on 334 acres and Otter Creek is a 60 MW facility on 682 acres.

The Grasshopper solar field is already online, delivering electrical power under an agreement with Facebook. Bluestone Farms is still in the construction phase but hopes to be online by the end of January. Its power will be sold directly on the power grid. Otter Creek is yet to break ground.

Kearns said he is hoping for a swift approval process and would like to begin construction at the site by spring of 2022. Even if Mecklenburg County gives the green light, Kearns said there is additional permitting required by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and reviews to be conducted by Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (previously DGIF), Virginia Department of Historic Resources, US Army Corps of Engineers, State Corporation Commission, and US Fish and Wildlife Service.

While Kearns said Longroad’s business model is to see a project through from green field to construction, he would not rule out selling the rights to develop the project ahead of construction. He also promised, “to be fair to the county.”

Longroad currently has four utility-scale solar facilities under construction, one each in Alabama, Texas, Utah and California. When completed they will generate nearly 1 gigawatt of energy. Longroad already owns or operates more than 400 solar facilities and 18 wind projects across the U.S.

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