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Planners nix community solar projects

SoVaNow.com / June 02, 2021
The Mecklenburg County Planning Commission denied two proposed community solar projects during their monthly meeting Thursday in Boydton.

Citing the ventures’ proximity to the towns of Clarksville and Chase City, committee members voted 5-3 against the projects, both of which Atlanta-based Dimension Renewable Energy was seeking to develop. One member, Mark Warren, was absent.

The two members of the Planning Commission representing the Clarksville area, Donna Dennis and Jerome Watson, both voted for the proposed developments. They were joined by Jarrious Lassiter. Opposed to the solar facilities were Chair Kyle Crump, Vice Chair Charles Reamy, James Puryear, Landon Hayes and county supervisor David Brankley.

Both solar facilities — one proposed for Noblin Farm Road on Gordon Brothers Farm and the other proposed for Highway 92 on the Michael Garnett property — are within a mile of Clarksville and Chase City town limits, respectively.

In 2020 the Virginia General Assembly enacted legislation to allow the development of small-scale solar projects that offer subscriptions to eligible customers to purchase a share of the output of the solar facility. Solar customers, through net metering, get billing credit from their utility company for the energy being supplied by the shared solar program.

To qualify as a shared or community solar facility, the project must generate electricity by means of a solar photovoltaic device with capacity rating that does not exceed 5,000 kWs (AC). The projects also must be located in the service territory of an investor-owned electric utility, be connected to the electric distribution grid serving the Commonwealth, have at least three subscribers, have at least 40 percent of its capacity subscribed with subscribers of 25 kWs or less; and be located on a single parcel of land.

Construction of the solar project must be completed within a 24-month period.

Gregg Gordon, owner of Gordon Brothers Farm and Kiernan Siao, director of development for Dimension Renewable Energy, offered reasons why the Planning Commission should support both projects, noting how the projects conformed to Mecklenburg County’s comprehensive plan which distinguishes between community solar projects and large utility-scale solar.

No one affiliated with the Highway 92 project other than Siao spoke in reference to the Chase City location.

Siao said both projects “minimize the impact on prime farmland in that footprint for the two sites represents 0.3 percent of the prime farmland acreage within a 2.5 mile radius. Both properties are located near existing commercial sites.” The Highway 92 project, known as CSG2, is down the road from warehouses and several commercial businesses. The Gordon Brothers Farm project, known as CSG1, is located on the back side of Gordon’s commercial nursery and is less than a mile from an industrial park and several commercial ventures.

Siao observed, “There is no need to locate these community solar projects next to existing transmission lines as community solar utilizes smaller voltage distribution lines.”

Gordon said much of the viewshed near his property is already buffered by an existing stand of mature trees. The open section sits behind a natural ridge that can and will be quickly and properly planted with a mix of deciduous and evergreen trees and other landscape plants to shield the solar array from sight.

Other points Gordon stressed about his property were:

» The proposed location will not take away from the comprehensive plan for growth or progress for Clarksville since the town has no planned industrial, commercial or residential use of this site for growth in the foreseeable future.

» There is no other solar site within four miles of the proposed site.

» The project would interconnect with existing upgraded power lines.

» The site provides a near-town diversification that is quiet, neighbor friendly, and does not burden surface or ground water resources.

» There is no night activity or excessive lighting associated with the facility.

» As fourth-generation farmers the landowners plan to continue stewardship of the land for future generations.

» The County’s own decommissioning requirements deem it reasonable to use some farmland for solar facilities to the extent that once the solar field is removed, the land is returned to tillable and natural conditions suitable for agricultural use.

» A community solar project is an agriculturally friendly means of diversifying income and one that does not require more permanent changes to the environment.

» The landowner has sufficient space to erect a secure onsite storage facility for solar panels that have reached the end of their useful life, should there not be a viable recycle or disposal program in place at the time of decommissioning.

Residents of 12 properties along Noblin Farm and Sawmill Roads signed a petition circulated by Patrick Newton objecting to the community solar project proposed for the Gordon Brothers Farm property. Newton presented the petition to members of the Planning Commission at Thursday night’s hearing.

Gordon countered by submitted a separate list showing the names of 13 businesses or homeowners whose properties lie within a mile of the proposed solar facility and who did not sign Newton’s petition.

Chase City Mayor Alden Fahringer spoke against the Chase City-area project, though he acknowledged that the Town’s position would shift in favor if certain conditions were agreed to:

» The site would be buffered by a planting of mature trees or a berm.

» During construction the contractor would install a wash plant to clean wash both trucks and boots worn by those working at the site. He said the wash plant would prevent mud from being tracked onto the roads and into commercial establishments patronized by the workers.

» The facility would create permanent jobs for residents both during and after construction.

» Dimension Renewable Energy would partner with the town to improve living conditions for residents.

Siao said his company would be willing to look into adopting Fahringer’s conditions, though he could not promise that permanent jobs would be created. He did not say whether Dimension would consider buffering either project site with mature trees.

Brankley said “the sticking point” for him is that the projects are “too close to town.” He added that when he and the other members of the Board of Supervisors amended the County’s Comprehensive Plan in 2018 to address solar facilities, there was much debate over the impact solar developments would have on future growth for towns in Mecklenburg County.

According to Brankley the initial push was to put a two-mile buffer between each town limit and a solar field. The compromise was to reduce the distance to one mile. He also acknowledged that by including the buffer language in the County Comprehensive Plan instead of a zoning ordinance, the language serves as a guideline, not a mandate.

Dennis pointed out that the Comprehensive Plan anticipated the potential that smaller solar facilities could develop close to a town’s border. She cited the language that recommends that any solar facility developed near a town border “be smaller in size.”

The projects that Atlanta-based Dimension Renewable Energy wants to develop are about 5 MW and would be installed on about 25 acres of existing farmland.

Siao said construction would last about six months.

Speaking after the vote, Gordon said, “It’s a sad day when people on the board [planning commission] don’t honor the wishes of members who live in the district.” He was referring to the fact that both Dennis and Watson, who represent the Clarksville area on the Planning Commission, voted in favor of the proposed community solar projects.

Dimension Renewable Energy can seek to overturn the planners’ recommendation by asking the Board of Supervisors for favorable consideration. When asked, Gordon said he would bring his project request to the Board of Supervisors. Siao did not say if his company would also appeal the denial of the Chase City area project. The earliest date at which the appeal can he heard is the June 14 meeting of the Board of Supervisors.

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I don't understand the second to last paragraph. My understanding was that Gordon was the property owner seeking approval for both of the projects. Why would he think it was a "sad day" because Dennis and Watson voted to approve?


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