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Mecklenburg planners come out against Geenex solar permit in Chase City

South Boston News
Katherine Keel speaks out against the project.
SoVaNow.com / July 19, 2017


The Mecklenburg County Planning Commission has given a thumbs-down to proposed utility-scale solar farm that Geenex, Inc. wants to build in the Chase City area.

Geenex’s request for a special exception permit to install its 913-acre solar farm, known as the “Grasshopper” project, drew a 7-2 vote in opposition by the Planning Commission. The project is proposed on property currently owned by Mac Bailey at the intersection of Highways 47 and 49 near Chase City.

The company’s request will now go to the Mecklenburg County Board of Supervisors for consideration. Supervisors, who have the final authority, are not required to accept the recommendation of the Planning Commission.

Representatives from Geenex and BayWa, the company that will be developing the project, appeared in front of the Planning Commission for a second time Thursday to make their case for the solar power installation, one of three that has been proposed in the Chase City area, although other solar projects are said to be waiting in the wings.

Geenex, based in Charlotte, N.C., initially applied for a special exception permit to construct a utility-scale solar farm on property it planned to purchase from Bailey. Since November 2016 when the original application was filed, Geenex has sold the development rights for the solar farm to BayWa r.e. Solar Projects LLC, a California-based renewable energy company focused on developing large scale solar energy projects.

Despite the support of Chase City town officials and almost no objections from neighboring landowners, the project was met with skepticism when first proposed to the planning commission. Having recently approved a 330-acre Bluestone Solar Farm, county officials were worried about the prospect of “losing” even more farmland to solar.

Supervisor David Brankley, who represents the area where at least three solar companies are hoping to locate, expressed concern about the concentration of projects in and around Chase City. In addition to the three companies that have announced plans, Brankley said up to two more companies solar energy firms may also be interested in building installations in the area.

As they have gone through the approval process, local officials have realized the county’s comprehensive plan is silent on whether utility-scale solar farms are consistent with the county’s development objectives. This prompted the county to hire attorney Greg Haley and Darren Coffey to address the question the suitability of solar farms in Mecklenburg County and to help them develop zoning and planning standards for solar power.

As proposed, the Geenex project would cover 90 percent of the existing farm land at the Bailey site with solar panels. Yet the closest any panel would come to existing houses or the roads would be 475 feet. Most of the panels would be set back more than 1,000 feet from the roads and the entire project would be surrounded by vegetative buffering. The project is within two miles of an already-permitted solar farm, the Bluestone project that is being built by Carolina Solar of Durham. That 350-acre farm is located on Spanish Grove Road.

Haley described some of the potential problems he said the county must address before approving the Grasshopper project. They include:

location standards that would eliminate the possibility of solar facilities concentrating in one area, from surrounding a town or replacing prime farmland;

development standards that specify setbacks, the percentage of each parcel that could be occupied by the solar facility, appropriate setbacks from roads and residential areas;

and administrative and enforcement conditions such as erosion and settlement control, security for decommissioning, stormwater management, ownership reporting.

Haley was particularly critical of the applicants’ decommissioning plan which they originally said would cost about $500,000, but last month revised the cost upward to $4.2 million. He also noted that the concentration of utility-scale solar farms around Chase City was in conflict with the county’s desire — as expressed in its comprehensive plan — to protect agriculture.

He explained there are two ways the county can address these issues. The first, which was proposed by Coffey, would be to establish a set of hard and fast rules specifying such things as the maximum size of each farm in acreage, the amount of each parcel that could be covered by solar panels, and the exact amount of setback from roads and buildings.

The alternative is to draft a more flexible policy, one that gives the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors the ability to approve or deny applications by solar companies on a case-by-case basis.

Also speaking in opposition to the proposed Grasshopper farm was Chase City resident and local attorney Katherine Keel. Keel’s historic farmstead abuts the Geenex farm.

She conceded that Geenex and BayWa have made a number of concessions which would mitigate the impact of their proposed solar farm on her property. Still, Keel said she was concerned for the town. “I don’t think it’s good for Chase City.”

Citing past failed attempts at economic development — Sherwood Foods and Star Scientific — she called for Geenex/BayWa to do something for the town as a condition of getting approval to build the solar farm. “We’re going to be here, and they are going to be gone.”

Several people spoke in favor of the plan, including Geenex’s attorney Ann Neil Cosby, who asked the Planning Commission to approve Geenex’s request for a special exception permit in accordance with existing planning and zoning conditions.

Cosby pointed out why, in her view, Geenex’s application doesn’t adversely impact the County’s comprehensive plan and why the site works. “It seems to me you have two overarching characteristics in your plan — protect agriculture and get economic development here. When it comes to land-use decisions, a parcel can’t be both. 72 percent of the county is going to be in agriculture and that’s fine, but if it’s all going to zoned agriculture, then where is your economic development coming from?” she asked rhetorically.

“So this proposal would provide a low impact use just outside of Chase City, invisible from the road and neighbors, that brings construction jobs, and what comes with these types of facilities — the potential for new businesses, corporations for which renewable energy is a corporate value and with millennials there are going to be more of those companies interested in that. If you don’t have solar facilities, you are not going to be considered by these companies, so again it’s those type of policy issues that are important," Cosby said.

The reason why the Bailey farm is suitable for a solar farm, according to Cosby, is because, “it’s outside the town limits, there’s an industrial area nearby, and it’s not by the largest area of land of statewide agricultural importance. It is a transition between agriculture and the town around the area where economic development can grow and thus it is consistent with comp plan.

“The town is in support of this,” she concluded. “They very much want this farm near their boundaries, and that is an important factor to consider.”

Charles Willis, a member of Chase City Town Council, explained his reasoning for supporting the proposed solar farm. He noted that the land in question has been bisected by major power lines for the majority of his life, and only occasionally used for farming. To him the solar would make no difference. “I don’t see any other industry coming forward. I haven’t seen any real estate developer wanting to develop the property for houses.”

He called the decision to allow solar farms in the county a “logical step” and implored the planning commission to recommend that Geenex be granted a special exception permit. “We should be taking advantage of this opportunity.”

Also speaking in favor of the permit was Mac Bailey, owner of the farm where Grasshopper would be located, if approved. He explained that the reason the previous owner sold the land to him was because he would “put it to use,” which he did — turning the farm into a pasture for cattle. Before Bailey purchased the farm, the land was not being used, he said.

Now Bailey said he is looking to consolidate his farming operations around his home in Lunenburg County. He saw the chance to sell the land to a company that would have little negative impact on Chase City or Mecklenburg County and its resources.

After the vote against issuing the permit, Bailey expressed his displeasure with the planning commission. “It seems very political to me. It makes no sense,” he said. Particularly, Bailey wondered what the reason the commission had for denying Geenex’s permit. “They’ve never given me an explanation.

He criticized the commission for interfering with a landowner’s right to sell his property. He also said it appeared as if the decision to deny Geenex’s permit was made before the hearing.

Based on the 7-2 vote in opposition to the permit, Bailey said “it seems the county is going backwards.

Following the vote, the planning commission held a work session to discuss how or if to amend the county zoning ordinance and the comprehensive plan to address solar farms. Haley was encouraged to work up recommendations that would allow similar projects to be reviewed and approved or denied on a case-by-case basis.

The Geenex application for a special exception permit is expected to come before the Board of Supervisors for a vote at their next meeting in August.



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