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Mecklenburg supes overturn planners, approve Geenex solar farm

SoVaNow.com / November 08, 2017
In a surprise move Monday, Mecklenburg County supervisors overturned the recommendation of the county planning commission and approved a request by Charlotte-based Geenex to install an 80-megawatt, utility-scale solar farm on land abutting Chase City at the intersection of Highways 47 and 49.

The vote occurred Monday before a standing room-only crowd at the monthly meeting of the supervisors in Boydton. Most everyone in attendance wore green stickers with the words “I’m for Solar” written on them.

The 913-acre property, owned by Mac Bailey, had been used as pasture for grazing cattle since Bailey purchased it from the Spaulding family in 2002. Prior to that, Bailey said the land, which is intersected with overhead power transmission lines, was overgrown with weeds and scrub.

After hearing from lawyers and representatives for Geenex and the county’s land use consultants, supervisors voted 5-3 for finding that the Grasshopper project substantially conformed to the County’s comprehensive plan and 5-3 in favor of granting Geenex’s request for a special exception permit.

Voting for both motions were Vice Chair Gregg Gordon, and supervisors Dan Tanner, Glanzy Spain, Andy Hargrove, and Jim Jennings. Voting against were board chair Glenn Barbour and supervisors David Brankley and Claudia Lundy.

Bill Blalock was not in attendance, having previously submitted his resignation from the board effective Monday.

Speaking after the vote, Barbour said he is not opposed to utility scale solar, but he felt that deference should be given to the recommendation of the planning commission, the body charged with reviewing requests for special exception permits and for ensuring that projects fit the development goals of the county.

Grasshopper project manager Kara Price wiped back tears when the outcome was announced. Acknowledging that it has been an uphill battle for her company as they sought to install what will be, to date, the largest solar farm in Mecklenburg County, she said, “I’m surprised, pleasantly surprised.”

Geenex initially applied for a special exception permit to construct a utility-scale solar farm on property it planned to purchase from Bailey in November 2016.

Despite the support of Chase City town officials, business owners and several hundred residents — albeit not the two nearest 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 and Planning Commission member David Brankley, who represents the area where both Geenex and Bluestone and a third project, Otter Creek, hope to locate, expressed concern about the concentration of projects in and around Chase City and the potential loss of nearly 1,900 acres of prime farmland in that one general locale.

Equally troublesome to the planning commission as they began their approval process was the realization that the county’s comprehensive plan and zoning code made no reference to utility-scale solar farms.

Members were left without direction as to whether these projects were consistent with the county’s development objectives, and if they were, what was required of the developers before receiving a special exception permit.

This prompted the county to hire attorney Greg Haley and planning consultant Darren Coffey to address the suitability of solar farms in Mecklenburg County and to help them develop zoning and planning standards for solar power.

These new standards were approved by supervisors at Monday’s meeting, but do not apply to any of the existing projects, all of which have sought county approval prior to the adoption of the zoning code and comp plan changes.

While not required to adhere to the new standards, Geenex, in response to concerns from neighbors and county officials had already altered the layout of its solar panels at the Grasshopper site.

Now, most of the panels will be set back around 1,000 feet from existing roads and the entire project would be surrounded by vegetative buffering that protects the scenic byway status of Highway 47 and shields the project from view.

This information, shared with supervisors at Monday’s meeting, seemingly appeased Jim Jennings who more than once expressed concern about the unsightly view the solar farm would present to travelers entering the town.

The company also received an approving nod from several supervisors after they were told that Geenex planned to graze sheep on the property while the solar farm was in operation.

A 2016 study conducted by N.C. State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences found the trend for coupling solar and sheep farms not only revitalized the sheep industry in North Carolina, but also reduced the cost for maintaining the ground in and around the solar panels.

With the county’s permitting process behind the company, Price said, “There is still a long process ahead. This is only the first step for us to start the rest of the state development process.”

As explained by Tommy Nelson of BayWa, the company hired to develop the Grasshopper project, the permit by rule process is a six-nine month, multi-step review overseen by the Department of Environmental Quality that addresses pre-construction issues involving natural resources, historic and cultural resources, endangered species studies, wetland surveys, mitigation plans, post-construction monitoring, and other requirements.

Once they satisfied DEQ’s permit by rule, BayWa can then start the building permit process. Nelson added that he does not expect the facility to come online until mid-to late 2019.

“Dominion will be building the interconnection facilities and that will be done second quarter of 2019. So, if we were able to hurry everything else up, that is the earliest that we could be online.”

If between now and the start of construction, solar panels become more efficient, Nelson said his company will shrink the footprint of the project down because the maximum power they can generate, based on the interconnection agreement with PJM, is 80 Mw .

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