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Planners side with opponents of Ladybug site / March 06, 2019

By a 7-3 vote, members of the Mecklenburg County Planning Commission rejected a request for a special exception permit by Cypress Creek Renewables to install the Ladybug solar farm on nearly 1,200 acres of farmland that abuts a designated scenic byway, Highway 903, and Lake Gaston in Bracey.

Voting for the permit request were Jarrious Lassiter, Jerome Watson and Charles Reamy. Casting “no” votes were Planning Chairman Kyle Crump, Vice Chair Charles Jones, David Brankley, James Puryear, Landon Hayes, Mark Warren and Joseph Taylor.

The planners’ recommendation to deny a special exception permit now goes to the Mecklenburg County Board of Supervisors, which can either accept or override the vote of the planning commission. Supervisors are scheduled to take up the matter at their next meeting, March 11 at 7:30 p.m.

The Planning Commission vote on the proposed 65-megawatt utility-scale solar project came after a two-hour public hearing on Thursday night in which company representatives and members of the community squared off on the merits of the solar farm. Afterwards, opponents expressed gratitude for the planners’ action.

“I’m thrilled with the landslide vote and thankful our county planning experts concluded Ladybug is not compliant with the Comprehensive Plan,” said Lynn Cisar of Bracey, a vocal opponent of the Ladybug facility. “Many citizens are concerned with the developer offering additional money to the school system in exchange to move the project forward and we find it highly inappropriate.”

Cisar was referring to a $10,000 donation Cypress Creek Renewables gave to the Mecklenburg Business Education Partnership in February to help fund development of a curriculum focused on the solar industry. The company has promised an additional $100,000 if the county issues a special exception permit for the Ladybug solar farm.

Arguing in favor of the project, Cypress Creek representatives say Ladybug would generate $1.5 million in tax revenue for Mecklenburg County over the life of the project, have no negative impact on county resources and adjacent land uses, nor produce any noise, emissions and glare. The developers said they would protect the rural nature of the land and the viewshed along the roads and waterways if the project were built.

Solar panels would be spread over about 500 acres of farmland, encompassing three separate properties on both sides of Red Lawn Road and Highway 903, a total of 1,186 acres. The owners of just over 400 acres of the project site are W. S. Hundley Jr. and others. The balance of the land is owned by Southern Legends Farm, LLC, whose statutory agent is Sherilynn J. Hummel of Burgess.

North Carolina-based Cypress Creek has promised to buffer the site with a mix of conifers and deciduous trees, intermixed with existing vegetation, and create a 63.7-acre conservation easement along the Lake Gaston frontage. They also offered to increase the setback between the solar panels and existing roads from the proposed 150 feet to 175 feet and agreed to repair any damage to Highway 903 or Red Lawn Road caused by construction vehicles traveling to and from the Ladybug site.

Cutter Sydnor, a licensed civil engineer hired by Cypress Creek to help with storm water and erosion management issues, explained that state law mandates that Cypress Creek must leave “the land better off after it [the solar farm] is in place than it [the project site] is today.” He promised that those portions of the site that were previously farmed or forested “will be converted into meadows, planted with grass stands that limit runoff and will be mowed 4-6 times per year.”

Chris Sandifer, an independent electrical engineer for Cypress Creek, shared his view that solar panels and racking system do not impact the health or safety of nearby residents. If panels are damaged, they can be recycled, although he only knew of one location, in Ohio, that currently accepts photovoltaic panels for recycling.

Their comments did not allay the concerns of the more than a dozen residents living along Red Lawn Road and Highway 903 who turned out at Thursday night’s Planning Commission hearing in Boydton. Comments by Cisar and Dennis Richardson, a property owner in the Beechwood subdivision nearby the proposed solar farm, reflected the views of many of those present.

Richardson said few people, including himself, are opposed to solar farms, but they are opposed to Ladybug’s proposed location. He said the scale and nature of the project will change the character of the area for generations and have a negligible positive fiscal impact in the context of the county budget.

On this point he was making reference to remarks by County Administrator Wayne Carter during an earlier meeting with the Board of Supervisors. At that meeting, Carter told supervisors the net benefit to Mecklenburg County over the life of the project “is more like $400,000.”

Richardson also produced a map he obtained from the U.S. Department of Agriculture designating more than 75 percent of the Ladybug project site as either prime farmland or farmland of statewide or local importance. He also shared photos of the project site taken from the water as proof that “the project assaults the waterway even with a buffer.”

Cypress Creek Project Manager Michael Whalen suggested the photos were taken of an area where no solar panels would be located.

Cisar spoke to ways in which the project runs afoul of the county’s Comprehensive Plan. She called the project a “mismatch that does not substantially comply with the guiding principles, values, and spirit of the Mecklenburg County Comprehensive Plan.” The reasons she cited are:

» Highway 903 is not suited to handle an influx of construction vehicles and flatbed haulers that would bring materials to the construction site;

» The magnitude of the facility is incompatible with the residential character of the immediate area;

» Placing an industrial solar generation facility on multiple sides of residential housing is intrusive, disruptive to the quality of life and reduces homes’ marketable value;

» The rolling topography of the area will leave parts of Ladybug in plain sight of the neighbors, notwithstanding the developer’s mitigation strategies;

» Land disturbances upland and along the watershed can easily trigger uncontrollable and irreversible sediment run-off, impacting multiple lakeside subdivisions;

» Ladybug’s industrial landscape would be in stark contrast to Bracey’s natural landscape and scenic and wilderness values;

» The project would have negative impacts on the area’s aesthetic, cultural and tourism value;

» The lakeside inverter needed to convert electricity at the solar farm would emit noise daily, amplified as it travels over the lake’s surface;

» Fences and engineered barriers will trap, divert and restrict access by migratory birds, eagles, osprey and other wildlife that rely on the area for food and water.

There were audible hisses from the audience as Al Potter, a member of the Lake Gaston Association, decried the hypocrisy of landowners who oppose the Ladybug solar farm but enjoy the benefits of an earlier utility-scale project that he said destroyed much of the rural character, wildlife habitats and farmland in the area. He was speaking about Lake Gaston itself, created in 1963 by then-Virginia Electric Power Company, forerunner to Dominion Energy, which continues to own the lake.

Most planning members listened without interjecting questions or comments, but David Brankley, the Board of Supervisors’ representative on the Planning Commission, disputed Whalen’s claim that Cypress Creek Renewables chose the Bracey property for their solar project because the location was away from population centers, and outside the one-mile boundary of any town, as suggested by the County’s Comprehensive Plan.

“I think [Cypress Creek] chose the site because of its proximity to a substation,” said Brankley. An electrical substation owned by Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative sits at the corner of Highway 903 and Red Lawn Road.

Planning Commission member Joseph Taylor, a South Hill attorney, asked several questions about the legal structure of the Ladybug project. If it is a shadow or shell entity, Taylor suggested, Ladybug might lack the financial resources to cover the cost of decommissioning the project at the end of its useful life, or maintain the site and equipment over its 20- to 40-year lifespan.

Whalen and Cypress Creek attorney Will Shewmake assured commissioners that Ladybug LLC was and would continue to be financially viable.

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It is ironic that the LGA send a notice of "Our Position" and in it noted that they did not find a reason to oppose the project due to impacts to Lake Gaston. If that is their position, then they
contradict themselves in their next paragraph, that they did not
support or oppose the project. You cannot have it both ways. This statement and the appearance of one of their Board members speaking on behalf of the LGA supporting the solar farm, highlights the conflict that the members of the Board have with the purpose of the LGA. I would suggest that they should resign their positions on the LGA for the greater good of Lake Gaston and not play games.

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