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Planners back solar project in Seven Oaks community / May 21, 2020
The Halifax County Planning Commission offered a thumbs-up to a proposed 20-megawatt solar generation facility that the developers hope to build off Bill Tuck Highway, near the Seven Oaks subdivision.

Planners heard comments for and against the project at their Tuesday meeting in Halifax to consider two land use requests. The solar project, by Charlottesville-based Sun Tribe Solar, drew the most interest.

The Planning Commission recommended that Sun Tribe be granted a conditional use permit for the solar array, which would take up 138 acres of a 244-acre tract located at the eastern edge of South Boston.

The venture, Watlington Solar LLC, has drawn opposition from several of the neighbors who say it will create an eyesore and nuisance. But Glenn Ratliff, who owns the property where the facility would be built, said people in the area have been largely positive about the venture.

“The residents of Watlington Drive have seen the plans and are pleased with my approach about the project,” Ratliff said in remarks to planners Tuesday. With a “nice natural buffer” around the site, neighbors won’t even be able to see solar panels, he said.

Offering a letter of support was Donald Ellington, who wrote, “The solar project is a good thing for Halifax County and South Boston.”

But the Planning Commission also has received letters in opposition, one by Frank Howerton of South Boston. “I am a 40-year resident of Seven Oaks and the solar project will be an eyesore to the community and local animal habitats along Watlington Drive will be gone,” Howerton stated. He asked planners to reconsider the proposal “because we don’t need commercial property at our back door.”

In the second letter of opposition submitted to planners, Kenneth and Susan Canada, residents of East Hyco Road, wrote, “My family is totally against solar projects near our family.”

Before the county grants the permit, Planning Commission chair Jim Davis urged Ratliff to meet with the letter writers to address their concerns in person.

“Please talk with those opposing the project before the next Board of Supervisors meeting,” said Davis. Replied Ratliff, “I’d be happy to meet with them and tour the site.”

It is up to supervisors to grant conditional use permits, while planners gather information on projects and vote whether to recommend them for approval. The Board of Supervisors is scheduled to hold its next meeting on June 15.

If approved, the solar array would be surrounded by a buffer of evergreen trees planted at least two rows deep, Ratliff said. Currently, nearby residents have low visibility of the site, according to the developers.

Sun Tribe Project Developer Bobby Jocz said the solar facility will take approximately nine months to build, starting in the spring of 2021. The company estimates it will create $4.1 million in economic activity through spending, permit fees and equipment on the site. During the construction phase, Sun Tribe Solar plans to employ 100 workers, a quarter of whom would be hired from a Southside Community College job training program called Shine.

Once it is built, the Watlington Solar Project would have an anticipated operational lifespan of 35 years. The county’s solar ordinance requires developers to plan ahead to decommission projects once they reach the end of their use.

Also Tuesday night, planners heard a request to rezone land to install a new billboard in Cluster Springs.

The parcel, 100 feet by 250 feet, is located on the north side of the Dollar General in Cluster Springs. Planners recommended that it be rezoned from agricultural A-1 to commercial zone B-2, allowing the billboard to be built there.

Al Harkins, real estate manager with Capital Outdoor Billboard, said “our billboard clientele represent car dealerships and real estate agencies.”

There are other commercial enterprises in the area, including the Apple Market and Cluster Springs Self Storage, and Dollar General. The new billboard will have two 35-watt LED ambient lamps on each side to enhance the nighttime visibility.

Only one person wrote a letter in opposition — Brenda Yancey, a resident of Sandy Beach Road. “Billboards are clutter which takes away from natural beauty and they do not help out the county,” she wrote to planners.

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