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Solar runs into complications with comp plan / July 05, 2017
The developers of Mecklenburg County’s first approved utility-scale solar energy array face a complication in their quest to turn their plans into reality: the county’s Comprehensive Plan.

Whether the comp plan, as it is known, poses a genuine obstacle to solar power in Mecklenburg, or represents a minor hurdle will depend on how planners handle the issue.

The comp plan currently does not envision solar energy as a part of the county’s future — despite the fact that one solar energy firm, Carolina Solar Energy, already has received the necessary local permitting to build an industrial-scale solar energy array outside of Chase City.

Concerns about how solar meshes with the comp plan dominated a discussion Thursday night as the Mecklenburg County Planning Commission held a public hearing on the Bluestone Farm project.

The hearing drew comments from company officials, advisors to the county and a landowner, Bill McBride, whose family owns the property in question. No other members of the public spoke.

The proposed Bluestone Farm is a 330-acre facility that would generate up to 70 watts of electricity for sale on the open market. The photovoltaic solar energy facility is planned for a site on Spanish Grove Road; two other solar energy developers have submitted plans for generation facilities that together would swallow up about 1,200 acres of land around Chase City.

Planners took no action following Thursday’s public hearing other than to agree to discuss the matter further at their July 27 meeting.

However, planners were urged by representatives for Carolina Solar Energy to uphold the county’s previous approval of the Bluestone Farm project. “All the rules were followed,” said Elizabeth Trahos, a lawyer for the company, of Carolina Solar’s successful application for a special exception permit — ratified by the Board of Supervisors in November.

However, the permit was approved before county officials assessed the impact of the Carolina Solar project on the Comprehensive Plan, a local governing tool to guide future development. The Code of Virginia stipulates that local planning commissions must review projects that are not mentioned in comp plans to determine if their “general location or approximate location, character, and extent” are compatible with envisioned land uses.

Mecklenburg’s plan contains no specific provisions for solar energy. Whether that omission should prevent the Bluestone project from going forward is something the planners will look at.

The Planning Commission is required to make a recommendation to the Board of Supervisors, which can approve or reject the group’s findings.

Carolina Solar CEO Gerry Dudzik urged the planning commission to adopt the position that solar energy is not incompatible with the comp plan, despite the lack of a specific mention. Dudzik extolled the benefits to the county of the Bluestone Farm solar array: creation of hundreds of temporary construction jobs, ongoing tax revenues, and a facility that would place no demands on county services.

At the end of the project’s useful life over a span of decades, the Bluestone Farm can be returned to agricultural use, Dudzik said — thereby not clashing with the county’s expressed interest in preserving agricultural land.

McBride, part-owner of the property in question, said the advent of renewable energy in Mecklenburg County is a good thing for the local economy and environment and praised Carolina Solar for keeping landowners “informed and involved” in the process.

However, a pair of advisors to the county urged the Planning Commission to consider further issues with solar energy in the context of a study that must be undertaken in conjunction with the comp plan.

That review — called a “2232 study” — draws its name from a section of the Code of Virginia. Mecklenburg County planners are required under the law to conduct the impact study, even though permitting for the Bluestone project has already been approved, said Greg Haley, a consultant for Gentry Locke, a firm advising the county.

Haley said it is not uncommon for Virginia localities to be in the dark on the 2232 study process, and in fact, neither county nor Carolina Solar officials were aware of it when the permit for Bluestone Farm was issued in November. Going back and starting the process makes for an “awkward situation,” he said, but not one where anyone did anything wrong.

“It’s an oversight, but no one acted improperly,” he said.

The Chase City area is attractive for solar energy development for a number of reasons, including inexpensive and available land and close proximity to the electric transmission grid. Throughout Virginia, solar power is making headway, thanks to tax subsidies for renewable energy and a growing emphasis on replacing carbon-based power with clean, emissions-free energy.

Solar energy’s rise may conflict, however, with Mecklenburg County’s emphasis on preserving farmland of local and statewide significance, and its need for land that can be used for economic development. Critics of the planned solar boom in Chase City have questioned whether all the proposed installations could choke off future growth in the area.

Darren Coffey, a consultant for the county with The Berkley Group, also noted that Mecklenburg must answer what happens once solar installations run their course. Estimating that solar farms will have a lifespan of 20 to 40 years, Coffey urged county officials to consider ways to guarantee that lands dedicated to solar energy production can be later restored to agricultural use.

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