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Mecklenburg planners give thumbs down to Longroad solar project

SoVaNow.com / October 06, 2021


The Mecklenburg County Planning Commission rejected Longroad Energy’s request to build an 800-acre utility-scale solar project on farmland near Chase City Friday.

Planners voted 9-0 not to recommend approval of the 105-megawatt project, known as 7 Bridges, to the Mecklenburg County Board of Supervisors. County supervisors have the final say-so in deciding whether to grant permit approvals.

This is the second time Massachusetts-based Longroad Energy has approached Mecklenburg County seeking a permit to build a utility-scale solar facility on land owned by the Devin family near Chase City. The first permit application was withdrawn in 2019 after the company received significant pushback from neighbors.

A motion made by planner Mark Warren and seconded by Jarrious Lassiter was to ask Supervisors to deny the application, on the basis of not being in substantial compliance with the county’s comprehensive plan. The proposed site is less than the recommended two-mile distance from an existing solar facility, and nearly double the 500-acre footprint the county considers acceptable for solar generation facilities.

The 7 Bridges project would sit in the middle of a wooded grove located between Scott’s Crossroads and Highway 47 on the outskirts of Chase City. It would be 1.2 miles from the existing 80-MW Grasshopper solar field, located on Route 49 at the northern end of town.

The $150 million project could power approximately 20,000 homes, with electricity generated by the facility to be transferred to the eastern interconnection grid known as PJM. It would not directly serve local customers.

Friday’s hearing — known as a 2232 review — was called to determine the compatibility of the proposed utility-scale solar facility with Mecklenburg County’s comprehensive plan. If the Board of Supervisors accept the planning commission recommendation and rejects 7 Bridges, Longroad Energy would then have to apply for special exception permit from the county, in addition to other state agency permits before work could begin.

The planning commission opposed the project despite assurances by Longroad Energy company officials that they would not repeat the mistakes made by past solar developers in the area. Both the Grasshopper and Bluestone solar projects — located on Spanish Grove Road near Chase City — ran into compliance problems throughout the installation process, with erosion and sediment control shortcomings and other problems that drew the wrath of neighbors.

Planning Commission member and county supervisor David Brankley said previous and existing developers of solar facilities in the county “have not made it good for anyone.”

More than a year after construction wrapped up at Grasshopper, neighbors say nearby Butchers Creek continues to be plagued with high levels of sediment that runs off from the Grasshopper site. Dominion Energy, which now owns the Grasshopper project, has yet to install buffering that blocks the solar array from public view.

The Bluestone Farm solar project is under a consent order issued by the State Water Control Board in April after the developers were found to have failed to minimize pollutants in stormwater discharges from the property into nearby Bluestone Creek. The Bluestone Farm solar project is still under construction.

Deron Lawrence, Longroad Energy senior director for natural resources permitting and policy, said the company is willing to “craft conditions” as part of the permitting process to address every concern and issue raised against the developers of other sites. Longroad would pay for a public liaison to function as a point of contact for residents with concerns, and also hire a contract compliance monitor who will report to the county.

Construction traffic on Scott’s Crossroads would be curtailed using shuttles and ride sharing. The setback from Scott’s Crossroad on the east and the South Meherrin River on the north would be between 395 and 400 feet, and trackouts would be installed for tire cleaning at project entrances, Lawrence said.

These promises failed to placate planners who raised concerns about the size of the proposed 7 Bridges solar project and its proximity to existing solar facilities.

The tone of the questioning changed after Lawrence, responding to a question from Vice Chair Charlie Reamy, acknowledged that during construction, Longroad plans to clear all trees and vegetation at the 799-acre site, even though the permit application calls for the installation of only 209 acres of panels, interspersed between wildlife corridors.

Lawrence said clearing of the entire site was necessary to construct access roads, temporary workspace, and water resource protection.

Reamy then chided Lawrence for claiming the company would use local labor. He told Lawrence, “That’s not true. You will bring in a crew.” Lawrence acquiesced on this point, explaining that Longroad attempts to hire local workers and is working with David Peterson who heads a local non-profit, SHINE, that provides workforce training to people looking to enter the solar field.

The 17 letters of support from business owners in Chase City and South Hill that Lawrence presented to commission members on Friday appeared to have no effect on the decision-making process. Commission member Mark Warren pointed out that the letters appeared to have been printed from the same computer and contained identical wording. Warren added that it would be helpful if solar developers would provide references from past projects. None was included with the application.

Mecklenburg County Zoning Administrator Robert Hendrick also shared with the planning commission the nine letters of opposition he received. These were from property owners living near the project, as well as a representative of the Friends of Meherrin River, a group formed in 2018 to oppose 7 Bridges and any solar project seeking to locate on land that adjoins the scenic waterway.

Hendrick said he did not receive — and officials with Longroad did not submit — any letters of support from neighboring property owners. When asked by The Sun why no such letters were included with Longroad’s application, Lawrence said none was solicited.

Lawrence and Mathew Bailey, the company’s commercial solar performance manager, said the 7 Bridges project conforms to Mecklenburg County’s comprehensive plan because it would be well-situated in the middle of a stand of existing evergreen trees, shielding the project from public view.

Brankley, who has consistently voted against solar projects, called that aspect of the site “ideal” though he had other objections to the location.

Bailey outlined what he said were the benefits this solar project would bring to the county:

» Over 200 construction jobs resulting in $8-$10 million in labor income.

» $20-$30 million in direct spending with local vendors and contractors during construction, such as restaurants, convenience stores, groceries, auto repair and more.

» $7 million in new tax revenue for the county over the 20-year life of the project.

» Educational opportunities for Mecklenburg County Public School students through training and learning experiences implemented between MCPS and Longroad.

» A siting agreement that will provide a one-time, $250,000 community benefit pack to local town and schools.

» An opportunity to re-populate bees and other declining insect business once native-pollinator friendly species are planted under the panels.

He even explained that Longroad had modified their initial site plan based on information received from the public and county officials, by increasing the setback from the Grasshopper solar project from 650 feet to nearly 6,400 feet, increasing the setback from the South Meherrin River to 400 feet or more, and from Scotts Crossroads to 395 feet or more. Longroad also said it would shift the panels so that the project infrastructure is located approximately 2.5 miles from Chase City town limits.

These pledges failed to sway the votes of any of the Planning Commission members.

Officials with Longroad declined to say if they plan to take their application to the Board of Supervisors which could hear the matter as soon as the next regular meeting on Oct. 12.

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Comments

These local government politicians keep thumbing their noses up to these clean energy projects, which is sending a "not open for business" message to all industrial prospects. If this region's leaders continue to stick their heads in the sand then the area will become a wasteland of despair and unemployment with blight and decay. When the solar companies locate in other states and Southern Virginia residents have to pay higher electric bills due to having to buy power from long distances and endure expensive facility/transport charges I hope they remember the backwards leaders who put them in financial dire straits. Clean energy (solar) is here and is the future of our country, I hope these leaders wake up and get on board before they get left behind!

Comments

Smh.... terrible decision. Way to insure the county stays financialy stagnent. Time to vote the visionless clowns out

Comments

Rural counties across the Commonwealth are re-considering, or voting down, utility scale solar projects. Local issues abound as it does with all politics. BUT THE BIGGEST SET OF REASONS why many rural counties are hesitating are because they appear to be a BAD DEAL! It is a BAD DEAL to give away THOUSANDS of acres of otherwise productive, beautiful land to technologies that will eventually be abandoned and left to pollute vast areas with toxic electronic waste. A GOOD DEAL requires the financiers to pay a large upfront fee and add to it annually for emergencies and eventually for clean up. A large, growing endowment for the county, like this, could make is a BETTER DEAL. And annual payments to counties for schools, roads, etc need to be much higher! ALSO, the promise of jobs is a sham and a scam: BAD FAITH and BAD DEAL. Few local regular jobs are created. It is a good thing that many rural counties are thinking long and hard about these projects. They need a MUCH BETTER DEAL!

Comments

If my math is correct, over 12% of the county is used for green energy. How much more do you want? Would you like your home to be surrounded with solar panels? Probably not! That 12% is John H Kerr Reservoir and it doesn't include LKG. 55K acres consumed vast family farms and acreage 70 years ago. I think we have occupied enough of the county.


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