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Mecklenburg Supes take first first step for Ladybug

SoVaNow.com / February 13, 2019
By a 5-4 vote Monday, the Mecklenburg County Board of Supervisors took a key first step towards approval of the controversial “Ladybug” facility in the Bracey area, a 65-megawatt solar energy array proposed to be built on 1,100 acres near the intersection of Highway 903 and Red Lawn Road.

The sharply-divided board opted to override a recommendation by the county Planning Commission to reject the project on the grounds it is not consistent with the County’s comprehensive plan. The developers are Cypress Creek Renewables.

Those agreeing that the request meets the conditions of the Comp Plan were chairman Glenn Barbour, vice chairman Gregg Gordon, and Claudia Lundy, Dan Tanner and Glanzy Spain. Voting against the project were David Brankley, Sterling Wilkinson, Andy Hargrove and Jim Jennings.

The vote allows Ladybug to go forward, but it does not represent the end of the process nor the final word by supervisors. The next step is for North Carolina-based Cypress Creek to apply for a special exception permit from the county. Zoning Administrator Robert Hendrick said he’s already received the company’s permit application.

Ahead of the vote, Michael Whalen with Cypress Creek Renewables shared the company’s views on why the planning commission made the wrong ruling.

He noted that while Cypress Creek is leasing or purchasing more than 1,100 acres of land in Bracey, only 500 acres would be covered with solar panels. The remaining 600 acres would provide buffer or be undisturbed. Contrary to the belief that the company was removing 1,100 acres of farmland from production, Whalen said only 180 acres of the site are currently farmed. Much of the land has been fallow for years.

The area surrounding the Ladybug site is “far from the county’s primary population centers,” he said, and less than one acre of existing wetlands would be impacted. Whalen promised to continue working with nearby residents on setback and buffering issues to protect their viewshed.

Whalen also said the company has already redesigned its site plan to include a 50-acre buffer between the solar farm, property located in the Beachwood Shores subdivision, and the Lake Gaston shoreline. The modification was done in response to concerns from neighbors, he said.

Whalen showed off photos taken by an aerial drone flying near the Lake Gaston shoreline at 100 feet and 18 feet above the property. Even with leafless deciduous trees, Whalen said the drone photos prove that recreational users on the lake will not see the solar farm.

Nearby land owner Steve Correll said the drone shots that Whalen presented did not provide an accurate depiction of the view from the water: “I overlook the entire field and there is no way to buffer the property because it slopes up from the water, and that is a very active part of the lake with lots of boat activity. In the winter you can see it very clearly,” he said.

Correll described the property as prime habitat for migratory birds, particularly in the winter, which he said would be lost once solar panels are installed. He noted, too, that there is an ecological risk associated with driving metal piles into the ground — claiming they will leach potentially toxic substances into the ground as they deteriorate.

Parker Sloan, also with Cypress Creek Renewables, described the economic benefits of the Ladybug project, among them $70,000 in additional revenue to the county in the first year of its existence, and $1.5 million over its life. These numbers were refuted by County Administrator Wayne Carter, who said the net tax benefit to Mecklenburg over the life of the project would be about $400,000, not $1.5 million.

Sloan offered no response. Instead he spoke of the company’s pledge to work with the Mecklenburg County Business Education Partnership to fund educational programs related to solar energy. As proof of their commitment, he shared news of a recent donation to MCBEP in the amount of $10,000, with the promise of another $100,000 if the school division will install solar panels and implement a curriculum related to renewable energy as part of its career-centered educational reforms.

Despite assertions from Sloan and Whalen that the project would use cutting-edge technology that created no noise, have no negative impact on county resources and would not cause a decrease in nearby real estate values, a clear majority of the audience at Monday’s meeting remained steadfast in their opposition to the solar farm in a residential neighborhood next to Lake Gaston. Their response was not “no” to solar farms, but “no” to the location.

Resident including Lynn Hileman and Barbara Correll have asked supervisors to consider the impact the farm would have on surrounding properties. Hileman’s home would be surrounded by the utility-scale solar arrays, and Correll showed pictures of the undulating topography as proof that no amount of buffering can eliminate all views of the solar panels or the farm’s metal fence topped with barbed wire.

Al Freer worried that the heavy trucks and machinery that would run along Highway 903 and Red Lawn Road during construction would destroy already “fragile roads.” He wanted to know what, if any plans, Cypress Creek Renewables had in place to repair the damage. Whalen promised to work with the county on this issue should the need arise.

In comments that went over poorly with the audience at Monday’s meeting of the board, Cypress Creek’s attorney Will Shewmake described the residents who signed a petition opposing the solar farm as “not sufficiently educated about the project.”

Speakers who followed said they were offended by his remarks, which they interpreted as him calling them ignorant and uninformed. Kelly White, a resident of the area, called his remarks “offensive” and Dennis Richardson added it was a “sad commentary.”

Whalen also had to walk back an assertion made by Sloan that the county would see economic benefit from a fiber optic line the company plans to run to the site. Whalen said it was a dedicated line that Dominion Power would use to monitor the solar activity, not an open line.

Even though he voted to allow the Ladybug project to move forward, Supervisor Glanzy Spain expressed concern that the company would not be involved with the project for its life span. Sloan replied, “It is our intent to maintain control of the project.”

In later comments by Bracey resident Dennis Richardson, supervisors learned that Cypress Creek Renewables recently sold off 20 percent of its existing project portfolio to a company in Great Britain, casting doubt on Sloan’s comment about the firm’s intentions.

After hearing from all parties, board members voted 5-4 to advance Ladybug to the next phase in the permitting project. If a special exception permit is approved, Ladybug will become the fourth solar project approved in Mecklenburg County. To date, no site work or installation has taken place on any of the three project sites previously approved.

In other business, supervisors tabled a decision on whether to join a class action lawsuit against several large pharmaceutical manufacturers and distributers including Purdue Pharma, CVS Health, Walgreens and Cardinal Health for losses suffered by localities resulting from the nationwide opioid crisis.

Bracey resident Al Potter asked supervisors to consider installing comfort stations at the recreation area and boat launches around the county. Jim Jennings encouraged the county to consider purchasing a drone that could be used to promote the county’s scenery.

Dan Tanner said his trips around the county have reinforced his belief that Mecklenburg must work toward removing all roadside dumpsters, replacing them strategically-located convenience centers like the one across from Park View High School on Highway 58.

Glenn Barbour described his participation in a focus group sponsored by Microsoft where they are looking into ways to help address community needs over the next 5-10 years.

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