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Tale of two solar farms: One accepted, one rejected / May 10, 2018

The Halifax County Board of Supervisors approved a permit for a Nathalie solar farm — the fifth such county project to be green-lighted for construction — but rejected another solar facility outside of South Boston after holding public hearings on the requests Monday night.

Supervisors approved a conditional use permit for Water Strider Solar, LLC, an 80-megawatt solar energy array set for construction at 1100 Jenny’s Ruff Trail, Nathalie. The project will be owned by Cypress Creek Solar, a Durham, N.C.-based developer.

ED-1 Supervisor J. T. Davis made the motion to approve the permit, with board members voting 8-0 in favor.

However, by the same 8-0 margin, supervisors rejected a second permit application, this time for a 10-megawatt solar farm at 2841 Huell Matthews Highway south of South Boston.

During the public hearing on the project, which was sought by SB Solar LLC, a number of area residents objected to the idea of placing the sprawling solar field in a residential area.

Among the arguments against the SB Solar facility is that the area under consideration is a gateway to South Boston and part of the county’s Urban Growth Planning Area. Opponents pointed to the County’s Comprehensive Plan to predict that the Halifax County Service Authority will expand water/sewer service to the area, making it more attractive for residential development.

ED-7 Supervisor Garland Ricketts moved to deny the permit, and fellow board members agreed.

Mary Garrard, who owns the land where the facility would be built, told the supervisors that she had inherited the property from her father, Sam Brooks, and if housing developers had wanted to purchase lots from her, they had 40 years to do so. No such lots were ever sold, she added.

By contrast, building a solar farm at the site would place no demands for additional services on the county since the developer hasn’t asked for any new roads or schools, Garrard pointed out.

“We see this as a beautiful opportunity to do something that is eco-friendly, [with] no increase in traffic, quiet and no offensive smells and a much-needed source of revenue for the county. I want to be able to enjoy some of my inheritance,” said Garrard, a longtime schoolteacher.

However, Ricketts noted that only one person came out to speak in favor of the project — and one would benefit from it — while numerous residents voiced their opposition at the public hearing.

One such speaker was Justin Throckmorton, who argued there were plenty of places where the solar farm might be located rather than at the intersection of the Hyco Road community.

“Location, location” was the point made by several speakers, including M. C. Day III, Tim Cole, Roger Slagle Jr., Roger Slagle Sr., Don Ellington, Michael Cole, James Martin and Bill Snead.

Snead commented that supervisors should “take a hard look at where you place solar farms.” He noted that 23 homes would be affected if the permit was approved, and the project would not bring any long-term new jobs to the community.

Furthermore, he said, visitors passing south from Gobbler’s Knob on Route 501 to South Boston would see nothing along the roadway but solar panels for 1.2 miles.

ED-8 supervisor W.B. Claiborne agreed that the area is a prime spot for residential expansion, and if approved, the solar farm could crimp future development of the Town of South Boston. ED-6 supervisor Stanley Brandon said he had received several calls from residents who oppose the permit.

Their comments drew a mild retort from ED-2 supervisor Jeff Francisco, who noted the difference in how the board responded to critics of the solar farm on Huell Matthews Highway and how they voted on the Water Strider solar farm, which also has drawn opposition from Nathalie residents.

The Water Strider project will be located on 960 acres fronting Stage Coach Road at its intersection with Jenny’s Ruff Trail and Bull Creek Road.

Francisco suggested that solar farm opponents in Nathalie are just as important as those who live near the Town of South Boston.

It was an apparent reference to comments made by Wayne Tribble, an opponent of the Water Strider project who angrily told supervisors he was hearing two different things about solar farm permits during Monday’s public hearings.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Tribble said. He accused the board of throwing ED-1 supervisor J.T. Davis “under the bus” when they voted to approve the permit for Water Strider.

Yet Davis, who made the motion to approve Water Strider, defended the vote, pointing out the Board of Supervisors has not taken its work on solar farms lightly. Instead, the county has developed the most stringent ordinance around for protecting county residents from the impact of solar field development. That ordinance requires strict regulations for decommissioning solar facilities, ample setbacks and regulations for screening buffer, Davis said.

At 960 acres, the Water Strider solar farm is the county’s largest permitted project. Over its projected lifespan, Water Strider will generate tax revenues of $8 million and supply electricity to 15,000 homes and create 224 temporary jobs, said Will Shumate, a representative for Water Strider and parent company, Cypress Creek.

Shumate said the solar farm will beautify the land itself, and Cypress Creek will own and operate the facility just as it has with 174 other company-owned locations. Shumate pledged to be a good neighbor and work with residents to address any concerns they make have about the project.

He proposed a setback of 250 feet from any structure in combination with proper buffering. Vickie Barker, one of the landowners of the property, said the solar facility will be next to their home on more than one side and they have no fear of any negative impact from the solar panels.

She said her family are five-generation tobacco farmers. Another neighbor who farms cattle and hay said she had no worries about the technology.

“Change is taking place,” said neighbor Brenda Short, and she hopes Halifax County will be a part of that. “It is natural for humans to worry,” she added, but county supervisors have a chance to be pioneers in seeing that Halifax joins the renewable energy future.

Other speakers drew a different conclusion — that only those who stand to benefit from the solar farm want to see the permit approved. Tribble noted that the county has focused its attention on smaller solar farms of less than 500 acres, not large projects on the scale of what Cypress Creek has proposed. He questioned the impact such a project might have on his farming operation after 3-5 years.

Another adjacent property owner, Rhonda Guthrie, asked supervisors to restrict the size of the solar farm since it has possible health impacts. She said it is unknown at this point if solar farms will impact public health because the projects have not been around long enough for people to really know.

Eddie Austin presented supervisors with a petition bearing the names of 133 residents opposing the permit. He said the matter has pitted neighbor against neighbor, adding that nobody wants it “except those who get the check.”

Michael Cole, a local attorney who has filed a lawsuit to stop a Crystal Hill solar farm near his property, said the case will be heard in Amelia Courthouse on May 21. Cole’s lawsuit contends that solar farms present an eyesore that will be mar the rural character of Halifax County. Solar energy, he added, is the most inefficient source of energy known.

Davis made one other argument about the permits that have been approved thus far: will bring $225,000 into county coffers, and with approval of the Water Strider solar farm, the county stands to collect another $174,000, bringing the total to nearly $400,000.

Following two earlier public hearings, board members approved the addition of 105.25 acres owned by Margaret Cole to the 70-megawatt facility on Powell Creek Farm Solar project, located at the intersection of Hendricks Road and Alton Post Office Road.

On yet another 8-0 vote, supervisors approved the addition of 15 acres to the 51-megawatt Sunnybrook Farm, located at the intersection of Clays Mill Road and Vaughan Lane. The 15 acre tract is owned by John and Kathy Ambrose.

In related action, supervisors approved a recommendation by County Planner Detrick Easley to increase the fee for Solar Energy Facility applications from $500 to $1,000. Easley said the increase is needed to cover the cost of advertising required public hearings and mailing notices to nearby landowners.

Supervisors also approved a conditional use permit which will allow Malcolm Ragan to operate a used car lot at 6066 Philpott Road. Ragan said he expects to have somewhere between 3 to 8 cars on the lot at a time for sale.

The Board also approved a conditional use permit sought by Joni Yoder which will allow him to operate a mini-storage building at 2077 Liberty Road, Nathalie.

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So let's get one fact straight, NO ONE throws J.T. Davis under the bus. He is the controlling force behind all things/decisions and runs the show, period. While, in Riverdale, its Mr. Ellington who has the political clout, he got a potential solar site on A-1, Agriculturally zoned land shot down by the BOS, while Eddie Austin failed to accomplish the same even though he had a petition with 133 names against the site in District #1. The County says the riverdale land is prime for development but since the adoption of the Comprehensive Plan in 2007 have failed to rezone it or get the HCSA to extend water/sewer services. Poor Planning on behalf of the County leaders.

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