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Digging in

SoVaNow.com / January 11, 2018
We’re a little more than 10 days into the New Year and already the news items are piled high on the plate. Let’s dig in.

The Halifax County Board of Supervisors met on Monday and took care of standard first-of-the-year business: picking a chairman and vice-chairman, setting committee assignments and ignoring legitimate public concerns about alterations to the Courthouse. The meeting minutes should bear the title: “The more things change, the more they say the same.” The supes voted 7-1 to award the Courthouse Renovation Project contract to Blair Construction of Gretna, with newcomer Stanley Brandon casting the lone (and largely symbolic) “no” vote. It looks like it’s going to be that kind of year.

Of all the defacements planned for the Courthouse, surely the worst is the cutting down of all the trees. (Or even most of them.) Another thing: In explaining why the county should turn to Blair Construction to handle the job, County Administrator Jim Halasz noted that Blair “brings to us people with experience in some of the unique aspects of courthouse renovations,” referring to the company’s work on the Charlotte County courthouse. To be clear, the reason for choosing Blair as general contractor is straightforward: Their bid was more than a $1 million lower than the other contender, J.E. Burton Construction. And Blair does have experience with courthouse restoration that it will carry with it to Halifax.

But let’s be clear about one thing: The Charlotte County courthouse expansion is not a “renovation” project. Charlotte County and Blair are building an entirely new facility — the result after people complained mightily about the proposed reconstruction and expansion of the historic county courthouse, which was designed by Thomas Jefferson himself. To say that Halifax is following the lead of Charlotte County’s “similar, successful courthouse project” — Halasz’s words — is to get the key fact about that particular project all wrong.

Another note about the kickoff of a new year for the Board of Supervisors: Dennis Witt was re-elected as board chairman while J.T. Davis relinquished the vice chairmanship, which goes to Hubert Pannell. Davis will remain chairman of the Finance committee, which is probably the most important job for board members anyway, while Pannell’s ascension strikes a fitting note insofar as he began his tenure as a member of the board’s dissenting faction (at the time) and has retained his independence of mind ever since. As organizational shuffles go, this both widens and closes the circle of influence on the Board of Supervisors.

At the same time, Witt appointed committees that — with the exception of Budget and Finance, chaired by Davis — have only two members each. Standard practice has been to name three-member committees. Why the difference? And who cares? We won’t venture a guess to the latter question, but it’s worth pointing out that two-member gatherings are largely exempt from open meeting provisions of Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act. We won’t be so bold as to suggest evasive maneuvers here, but at first blush, the change in committee composition seems like a defensive and unnecessary move.

Then again, given the way the courthouse saga has played out, who’s to say that secrecy isn’t the Halifax County Board of Supervisors’ best friend?

***

Supervisors also started the year by taking a positive step: They granted a permit Monday for construction of Halifax County’s first utility-scale solar farm, in Crystal Hill. The project, to be built by Urban Grid Solar, will add 65 megawatts of electrical generation to the power grid. All in all, various solar developers are eyeing new installations in Halifax County that would generate up to 450 megawatts, which is roughly two-thirds the capacity of Duke Energy’s Mayo Plant on U.S. 501 between South Boston and Roxboro, N.C.

Solar power in Halifax County is already proving to be a boon for large-tract landowners who suddenly have eager potential buyers for their properties. Ultimately, however, solar’s real impact will be on incumbent players in the energy marketplace: oil, natural gas and coal. Coal-fired plants in particular are facing a bleak future, due both to their undeniably negative impact on the environment and the growing uncompetitive position of coal as a fuel source. Projects like the Mayo Steam Station and the behemoth, four-unit Roxboro Steam Station near Semora (yes, the names of the two plants make no sense) are old and dirty. Yet they could probably go on churning our power and pollution forever if not for the rise of alternatives such as renewable energy. No one likes to see anyone lose a job or companies close down their operations, but the damage inflicted by Duke’s two massive coal-fired stations just across the state line is hard to ignore.

So, yes, we’re happy that the supervisors made a little history this week by granting Halifax County’s first-ever solar farm permits. More like this, please.





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