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Three’s the charm: Otter Creek solar farm okayed

SoVaNow.com / February 14, 2018
A third solar farm project, the 60-megawatt Otter Creek photovoltaic array on Spanish Creek Road near Chase City, has won approval from the Mecklenburg County Board of Supervisors.

Supervisors on Monday voted 8-0 with one abstention in favor of granting a special exception permit for the project. David Brankley cited a conflict of interest as the reason he abstained from the vote.

Otter Creek is planned on three tracts of land on Spanish Grove Road near Highway 92, less than a mile from Chase City town limits. The project would also lie less than a mile from a second solar project, Bluestone Farm, and within two miles of third solar facility, dubbed the Grasshopper project.

Only two people rose to speak during a public hearing Monday held ahead of the vote. Monty Hightower, who lives within 400 feet of the site, said he strongly favors the solar farm. As a beekeeper, Hightower he was excited to learn of plans by the developer, Brookfield Renewables, to surround the area with native grasses and flowering plants that pollinators, such as bees and butterflies, find attractive.

The grasses and flowers are in addition to the trees and shrubs the developer has agreed to plant to screen the farm from public view.

The other speaker was nearby landowner Phil Clark. Clark told supervisors that he moved to Spanish Grove Road in 1995 when it was still a dirt road out in the country. He feared that the two solar farms being built near him would bring down the value of his property and hurt the area aesthetically.

“If Otter Creek is built, I will drive down the road and see chain link fences for two miles. I’m not a person who would purchase a home adjacent to a solar farm,” he said.

Clark urged supervisors to hold off approving additional solar farms for the area. Instead, he said, the county should allow the two projects already approved — the 330-acre, 70-megawatt Bluestone Farm on Spanish Grove Road proposed by Carolina Solar Energy, and Geenex’s 80-megawatt Grasshopper farm on 900 acres at the intersection of Highways 47 and 49 — to be built before adding more solar facilities. “If Otter Creek is approved, there will be 2,000 acres of solar panels,” Clark pointed out.

Clark said he feared more companies would flood the area with similar projects. Upon being asked, Zoning Administrator Robert Hendrick said so far, no other company has filed an application for a special exception permit for a solar farm.

Francis Hodsoll, CEO of Solunesco, the Virginia-based firm spearheading Otter Creek, said to the best of his knowledge there is only one other potential developer looking to bring a solar farm to Mecklenburg County. That farm, if developed, would be located on Highway 47 near the Lunenburg County line, he said.

Hodsoll said his company and the developer, Brookfield Renewables, were “absolutely committed to being a good neighbor, to making sure they maintain the property in a way that is pleasing to the neighbors and area. We will maintain a 100-foot buffer [along the road] and improve the aesthetic value to those driving down Spanish Grove Road. When the time comes we will remove all [materials] and restore the land to its zoned use” for agriculture.

Brankley sought assurances from Hodsoll that local contractors “would get a fair shot at getting work” installing the solar farm. Hodsoll responded, “We [Solunesco] are part of an association that is creating a bulletin board to facilitate connections between general contractors who will manage projects and the local contractors who are able to do the needed jobs — grading, electrical, fencing.” He further suggested that certain skilled laborers from here could become part of a cottage industry installing solar farms throughout Southside Virginia.

Worried that the solar panels might create a dust problem for the area, or worse, become inoperable after being coated with dust, Board Chairman Glenn Barbour asked how such a problem would be prevented. Hodsoll replied, “We are different than the west coast where solar fields are built in deserts. We here have more than enough rain” to keep dust in check. In times of low rainfall, Hodsoll said crews will deploy water trucks to wet down solar panels and rinse off the dust.

In other business at Monday’s regular monthly meeting, supervisors moved forward with plans to purchase a new radio system for the county’s first responders at a cost of $936,593.34. The system, MotoTrbo Capacity Max, will streamline communications and make the local system more efficient, according to Jon Taylor, head of the County’s Emergency Management System.

Before recommending the MotoTrbo system, Taylor said he viewed a similar radio system being used by first responders in Georgia, which he said was working very well. “This will be the first time there will be interoperability between everyone [law enforcement, firefighters, EMS personnel and the 911 call center] in the county,” said Taylor adding, “it is going to make it safer for everyone.”

Interoperability is the ability of first responders — police officers, firefighters, hazardous materials teams, emergency medical service personnel, and others — to communicate effectively with one another during an emergency.

In 2003, the US Government Accountability Office noted the lack of interoperability “is a long-standing and widely recognized problem in many areas across the country. When first responders cannot communicate effectively as needed, it can literally cost lives — of both emergency responders and those they are trying to assist.”

When asked by board members if this was the same system used by Virginia State Police, Taylor said, “No. We can’t afford an 800 MW system [like the one currently used by the State Police]. It would cost several million dollars.” County Administrator Wayne Carter added, “Troopers have $40,000 of radio equipment in their cars. The equipment cost more than the cars are worth.”

Even though Troopers are using a different radio system, Taylor said they still can communicate with other first responders in the county.

Also, Superintendent of Schools Paul Nichols updated supervisors on repairs made to the heating system at Park View Middle School. Cracked radiators in the main building were welded and returned to service and heat pumps that both heat and cool were installed in the classrooms of the sixth grade wing of the school, replacing the existing boiler system. Electric heaters were installed in two restrooms in that same wing and two small officers received window heat/cool units.

“The total cost of all repairs has been submitted to Mr. Carter and was significantly less than what was initially requested,” Nichols said. He’d asked for $70,000, but spent less than $16,000. Nichols credited Director of Maintenance Brian Dalton and his staff with the cost savings.

Noting that new heat pumps and window air conditioners were removed when the new heat pumps were installed, Nichols said the displaced equipment will be recycled into other facilities once the county’s new secondary school is built.

In other business:

Lisa Gillispie of Chase City was appointed to the Mecklenburg/Brunswick Airport Commission. She replaces Charles Duckworth.

Sammy Walker sought direction on how to go about rezoning property he owns at 1142 Buffalo Spring Road. He said it is currently designated R-1, and he wants it restored to its prior zoning A-1. A subdivision was created for that property in 2004, but no lots were sold.

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