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Halifax supervisors reject solar facility in Nathalie area

SoVaNow.com / September 06, 2018
The Halifax County Board of Supervisors has denied a permit for Stagecoach Solar LLC to operate a 16.6 megawatt solar energy facility in the Nathalie area.

Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to reject the company’s application for a conditional use permit, thereby overruling the county planning commission, which had voted 5-3 to recommend the project.

Stagecoach Solar was seeking to become the seventh renewable energy facility to gain approval to operate in Halifax County, but after listening to an outcry from opponents Tuesday night, the supervisors voted 7-0 to kill the project.

ED-5 supervisor Joey Rogers, was absent at the Tuesday regular monthly meeting, held a day later than usual due to the Labor Day holiday.

Objections to the Stagecoach Solar array ran the gamut, from neighbors who said Halifax County has approved enough solar farms already, to historic preservationists who raised concerns about the solar array’s close proximity to the DeJarnette Tavern, site of a recent highway marker ceremony.

Other speakers, including ED-1 supervisor J.T. Davis, in whose district the project would be built, cited another reason for rejecting the project — its small size, which would allow Stagecoach Solar to avoid paying real estate taxes to the county.

The company would qualify for a real estate tax exemption under a federal law that disallows property taxes on solar installations generating less than 20 MWs of electricity.

In approving six other solar projects before this one, the Board of Supervisors was mindful of the tax windfall that would result from the development of rural land, said Davis. Halifax County expects to reap $470,000 annually from solar projects; “this is money needed to fund improving or renovating our schools,” he said.

Davis and Jeff Francisco, ED-2 board representative, both mentioned Stagecoach’s property tax exemption as a reason to look dimly upon the project.

Some residents who spoke at Tuesday’s meeting argued that Halifax County has done too much to encourage solar energy’s spread: “I’m opposed to any solar farms,” said one speaker.

Eddie Austin, a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the county after the board approved a different project near his property, allowed that he does not live next to the proposed Stagecoach facility, but “enough is enough. I don’t want Halifax County to be known as the ‘solar farm county.’”

Speaking on the other side of the issue was Dew Price, managing director of Hexagon Energy, parent firm of Stagecoach Solar LLC. Price touted the economic benefits of the project, which was proposed for construction on 322 acres at Stage Coach Road, near the intersection with Bull Creek Road.

Price said the company would hire 85 people to fill construction and maintenance jobs, generating $8 million in local economic impact. Price also noted that Hexagon is working with Southside Virginia Community College to develop a job training program tailored around the solar industry so the work of installing the solar panel fields would go to local residents.

Another company representative, Adam Vente, described an earlier informational meeting with nearby landowners at the North Halifax Volunteer Fire Department in which the company sought to address concerns that residents might have about the project.

One of the owners of the property where the solar field would be built, Donald Holland, appealed to supervisors that let him use his land as he wanted.

While the property has been in his farming family for generations, Holland said he is not a farmer and furthermore at his age, he does not have time to plant pine trees and wait another 30 years for them to mature and produce revenue.

Larry Jennings, an adjoining property owner, added that he felt the company had met all the requirements of the county’s solar ordinance, and asked that the permit be approved.

Previously, the Halifax County Planning Commission voted to recommend the Stagecoach generation facility, on the condition that the developers abide by 25 specific conditions. County Planner Detrick Easley explained to supervisors that the rows of solar panels would take up only a portion of the proposed site, jointly held by two owners who would be able to use the rest of the land for their own purposes.

Easley advised that Stagecoach Solar’s permit request meets all of the conditions set forth by the county’s solar ordinance and would have a minimal impact on the community and the environment.

Planners were not unanimous in their support for the project, however, sending the matter to the Board of Supervisors after voting 5-3 in Stagecoach’s favor.

Still other speakers at Tuesday’s meeting raised other concerns about the solar array.

Barbara Bass, president of the Halifax County Historic Society, noted that historic DeJarnette Tavern lies within 500 feet of the proposed site. She also raised concerns about an old-style tobacco barn next to the site; Preservation Virginia recently awarded a $3,000 grant to save the structure.

Bass asked how long it would take for protective vegetative cover to grow around the solar facility, and she pressed board members to explain the county’s plans for future solar farm development in the area.

Sonya Ingram of Chatham, director of Preservation Virginia, also raised questions about topsoil being removed from the land where rows of solar panels would be built. If that happens, she explained, farming won’t come back if and when the solar units are decommissioned and removed.

Board Chairman Dennis Witt pointed out that supervisors have spent a great deal of time developing a local solar ordinance. The ordinance restricts the number of facilities that can be built in a five-mile area; it also sets forth conditions for decommissioning projects in the future, including a requirement that companies post a bond to cover equipment removal costs.

However, Davis conceded that Halifax County does not have a master plan for the siting of solar farms. There are 34 solar farm projects in development in the State of Virginia, and six of those are in Halifax County, Davis said — further raising the possibility of a seventh project coming in the near future.

One of the approved projects, Water Strider, is located in ED-1, which he represents, Davis noted. Two are located in ED-2, with the other three approved projects spread around Halifax County.

Unlike the Stagecoach facility, the Water Strider solar farm would generate tax dollars for county coffers, Davis said, which is one reason why he supported it.

The denial of the Stagecoach permit application is not the first time supervisors has rejected a solar array. Supervisors also turned down a 10-megawatt facility that would have gone up at a site on Huell Matthews Highway, a short distance from the Town of South Boston. In rejecting the permit in June, supervisors cited local opposition and the fact the facility would have fallen within a designated urban growth area.

Of the solar projects that have been proposed in Halifax County, none has advanced to the construction stage thus far.

Following other public hearings Tuesday night, supervisors approved a conditional use permit for Steve Chafatelli to operate a used car sales business at 1074 Leigh McKay Trail, South Boston, and board members also granted a permit for William E. Milam Jr. to operate a rentable venue for weddings, receptions, birthday parties, family reunions and other events at 10064 Melon Road, Sutherlin.

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