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Opinion

Welcome the dawn

SoVaNow.com / January 16, 2019
Life comes at you fast:

» I don’t know enough about the particulars of the Ladybug solar energy project in the Bracey area to say whether it’s a good idea or a bad idea, but I’ll admit to being somewhat flummoxed by the ill will that seems to latch onto the very idea of building solar farms in the region. Having seen how some folks in neighboring Halifax County have greeted plans for solar generating facilities there, I can assure you that the phenomenon does not belong to Mecklenburg alone.

NIMBYism — that’s short for not-in-my-backyard — gets a bad rap and undeservedly so, in my opinion. After all, it’s at the root of all fears with uranium mining, which most people downriver from the Coles Hill mine site in Pittsylvania oppose strenuously (me included). Controversies over solar farms would go nowhere if we didn’t have zoning laws, since the entire idea of land use regulation is to protect landowners from noxious development next door. Zoning is the leg that NIMBY stands on, and we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the neighbors’ complaints in these matters are often very valid.

Back in the day, former Baskerville supervisor Bill Blalock would inveigh against the evils of zoning; if you didn’t know better, you would have thought Mecklenburg County’s most influential elected official of the past half-century was describing a communist plot against America. Blalock was wrong about the merits of zoning, but he was right, it turns out, in warning that landowners could be unfairly denied the full right to use their land as they wish. Blalock famously tried to open up the county to industrial-scale hog farming and private landfill development, about which he was also misguided, but it’s fair to wonder if we in the present day and age aren’t taking things too far in demonizing the lowly solar panel. I drive by solar installations in North Carolina all the time and frankly wonder what the big deal is. And ironies of ironies, some of the strongest pushback against solar is coming from the ag community that Blalock long spoke for.

I’ll say this much: solar’s day has only begun to dawn. Over in Halifax County, Dominion has announced it will dig up and rebuild the coal ash pits at the Clover Power Station, an expensive undertaking driven by environmental regulations that plainly needed to be strengthened (as evidenced by the Dan River coal ash spill a few years ago.) In light of the terrible effects of burning coal on the environment, it would be inadvisable to make bets on the remaining lifespan of the Clover project and other coal-fired plants in the region, especially Duke Energy’s two power stations in Person County, N.C. (Duke’s Roxboro Station, in the western part of the county near Semora, N.C. is one of the largest and dirtiest generation facilities in the U.S.) Replacing all the energy that will be taken off the grid once these coal plants are shuttered is an enormous undertaking; the impact of doing nothing will be much, much worse. Solar power has an essential, maybe even preeminent role in filling the energy void, and that’s a reality and an opportunity that rural areas should embrace.

Again, this is not meant to be an endorsement of the Ladybug project; like many of the landowners there, I’d be leery of placing such a facility smack dab in a lakefront community. On the whole, Mecklenburg has done a good job establishing a sound framework for solar energy development — a framework that protects the county against fly-by-night development — but it’s fair to worry that local government may become too pinched in their handling of solar farm applications. Allow landowners to sell their acreage for princely sums, require developers to proceed responsibly with their renewable energy plans, and let the sunshine in.

***

Hitting up the state budget for money to build new schools in low-income area is exactly the sort of thing Southside Virginia’s lawmakers should do in Richmond, but they sure do have an odd way of doing it. The General Assembly has opened with a big debate over what to do about the Trump Administration’s 2017 tax law; for various complicated reasons, mostly having to do with the change in the standard deduction on federal tax returns, Virginia can either do basically nothing and reap hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue from upper income payers, or forgo the revenue and provide some of Virginia’s most well-to-do earners with a break that the lowlier among us don’t qualify for. (If the legislature takes the latter route, it’ll also throw Virginia’s tax structure out of sync with the feds’.) As noted, all this is arcane stuff, and you’ll get a better explanation from your tax advisor, but the gist of the question — revenue for much-needed public goods, or tax spoils for Jeff Bezo’s employees — is all there.

What does this have to do with school construction projects such as Mecklenburg’s new secondary school campus? Simple: the state could — emphasis could — be of tremendous help in lifting the financial burden off county taxpayers. In fact, state Sen. Frank Ruff has suggested that Virginia should take another big revenue windfall (from internet sales taxation, another complicated story, don’t ask) and use it to boost the Literary Fund, the state’s low-interest borrowing source for localities with school capital improvement needs. It’s even been suggested that Virginia could provide no-interest loans to localities that need to build new schools — if such a thing happened, the savings for Mecklenburg County taxpayers would run in the millions.

The only problem? Math. (As usual.) Gov. Ralph Northam has proposed an $80 million contribution to the lending pool, a sum that has been derided as hopelessly inadequate. Which it is. It’s still a lot better than the funny-money stylings of Republican legislators who bray about tax ripoffs with Northam’s refusal to go along with the Trump tax law — which truly is an abysmal piece of public policy — and yet propose to spend gobs more money on local school construction. Whither the wherewithal, pray tell? As usual, Republican Senator Bill Stanley of Franklin County is the worst poseur in this regard: he has floated a plan for $4 billion for new school construction based on a funding model that appears to be as flimsy as an umbrella in a hurricane. It’s not just Stanley, though. Republicans since Jim Gilmore have been promising tax cuts and public investments hand-in-hand like they’ve just come up with a yummy recipe for olive oil ice cream, and they stand by their chronic innumeracy no matter how many times someone points out that two plus two doesn’t equal five. Why take these people seriously?

That’s a shame, because the needs of places like Mecklenburg very much need to be taken seriously. That also means taking seriously the notion that some things are worth paying for, and tax cuts for wealthy people aren’t among them. Modern facilities for schoolchildren in economically-struggling areas shouldn’t be such a hard ask in Richmond, but it sure would help if lawmakers with a little credibility were doing the asking.



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