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Mecklenburg planners back Otter Creek Solar by 5-4 vote / December 06, 2017

A second proposed utility-scale solar farm project planned for Spanish Grove Road near Chase City passed its comprehensive plan review Thursday night, by the barest of margins.

Officials with Otter Creek, a 60 MW solar generation project, came before the Mecklenburg County Planning Commission Thursday night, hoping to hear that their project would be green-lighted, thus moving it one step closer to construction.

The vote was 5-4 in favor of the project, with one abstention. Commission members Jarrious Lassiter, James Puryear, Charles Jones, vice chairman Charles Reamy and Jerome Watson voted yes. Voting in opposition were chairman Kyle Crump, and members Joseph Taylor, Mark Warren and Landon Hayes. David Brankley abstained, citing a conflict of interest.

The next step is for the Otter Creek project to seek a special exception permit from the county. A decision on whether that will be issued must come from the Board of Supervisors, and that likely will not happen before the first of next year.

The 2232 review that was conducted by the Planning Commission Thursday night was a determination of the compatibility of the proposed public facility with the guidelines established in the County’s Comprehensive Plan. Specifically, after hearing from the applicant and the public, the Commission determines if the general or approximate location, character and extent of the facility are in substantial accord with the Mecklenburg County Comprehensive Plan.

Crump, who initially asked the commission to find against the project, said while the county’s existing comp plan did not address solar farms, it did speak against the concentration of a single type of industry and in favor of keeping prime agricultural land. “The proposed location is too close to an existing facility and creates an undesirable concentration in one area,” Crump said.

He said he also gave serious weight to the more than 100 people who signed a petition opposing the utility.

A quick review of the petition by those supporting the installation of Otter Creek found a number of the people who signed the petition who they said do not live near the proposed site or Chase City.

Reamy, speaking in support of the project called it a “move toward progress. I see no reason not to approve it.”

If the Otter Creek Solar farm is granted a special exception permit by the county - the next step in the construction process – it would be built at the intersection of Highway 92 and Spanish Grove Road, approximately 1.4 miles west of the Chase City town boundary. It would be within a mile of the already approved 70-megawatt, 330 acre Bluestone Solar Farm and within two miles of the 80 mw 915 acre Grasshopper solar farm.

The proposed design for Otter Creek would use 327 acres of a 682-acre site spread out on both sides of Spanish Grove Road.

Francis Hodsell, the CEO of Solunesco, the company that initiated the Otter Creek project said there were several reasons why Thursday’s ruling by the planning commission was correct.

He said, the project is aligned with and supports the stated goals and objectives of the comprehensive plan because “our Project preserves the rural character of the county through the use of planted buffer systems and setbacks, there are no structures contemplated as part of the Project that will be over twelve feet in height, and our proposed design conforms to the contour of the land with minor grading. In addition, existing vegetation, topography, and a robust vegetation plan will screen the project from adjacent rights of way and residential properties.”

In a later conversation, Hodsoll pointed out that the buffering will screen what is currently an undesirable view of land that was recently timbered. He also said the company plans to underplant the field beneath the panels with flowers and grasses that attract pollinators such as bees and butterflies. Since the purpose of the panels is to store the heat and direct it for electrical current, there is no or minimal ambient heat loss that would be harmful to these beneficial insects.

Another benefit to the environment comes from the fact that this ground-cover provides for long-term regeneration periods for soils and groundwater resources on these large tracts, facilitating a return to rural or agricultural use following decommissioning, according to Hodsoll.

Currently, landowners are actively farming a significant portion of the property. Hodsoll said the solar generating facility should also provide a positive effect on water quality from reduced use of herbicides and fertilizers, and provide for a reduction in the sediment transport caused from repeated land disturbance.

Speaking to those who fear the loss of prime agricultural property, Hodsoll pointed out that between the three solar farms currently proposed for the county, less than 1.5-1.75 percent of the total designated prime agricultural land would be taken out of production.

He continued, “the project will protect neighboring properties from future uses that create visual or noise impacts to adjacent properties. Outside of an increase in on-site activity during the brief construction period, the project will not create any traffic, population increase, or other negative impacts associated with other forms of development. Solar provides for a low impact and temporary use of the land, which protects the land beneath and after decommissioning allows for the land to be returned to its original condition.”

He called solar energy generation, a green, renewable method of generating electricity with no wear and tear on existing infrastructure, no drain on current resources, no harmful emissions or greenhouse gas production, no negative effects to ground or stormwater and no generation created by-products or hazardous waste production.

As for air quality, visual impact, preservation of cultural heritage, wetlands and endangered species, the States Department of Environmental Quality will demand Otter Creek conduct studies that prove their project will have no negative impact on any of the aforementioned factors before granting the appropriate state permits.

While the 2232 hearing is the first step, Otter Creek must undergo much more rigorous review, said Hodsoll, before the construction can begin.

Ultimately, Otter Creek Solar will hold together these larger tracts, according to Hodsoll, and, as statutorily required, Otter Creek Solar will return these tracts to traditional agricultural status after the lifespan of the facility, which he said was about 25 to 35 years.

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