After approving two massive solar generation facilities in recent weeks — including the Randolph Solar Project, one of the largest solar farms in the U.S. — the Charlotte County Board Supervisors has hit the pause button on solar power applications in the coming year.
Meeting on Aug. 8, Charlotte supervisors voted 4-2 to freeze action on any unapproved solar permit requests until the Charlotte County Planning Commission makes a recommendation on zoning for future solar development in the county, or through January 1, 2024, whichever occurs first.
Supervisors Butch Shook, Tony Reeves, Will Garnett and Walter Bailey voted in favor of the pause. Butch Hamlett voted “no,” but only after his attempt to extend the timeline until Jan. 1, 2026 failed.
Hazel Smith also voted against a temporary suspension of conditional use permit requests for solar farms, but gave no reason for her vote.
Board Chairman Gary Walker was absent from the meeting
Charlotte supervisors have approved six solar generation facilities in the last four years, including the most recent project, 800-megawatt Randolph Solar, which if built will become one of the five largest photovoltaic arrays in the country. Supervisors at their Aug. 8 meeting agreed to hold off on reviews of additional solar permit requests until the planning commission completes its work updating the county’s comprehensive plan.
The comprehensive plan is used by local governments as a broad, long-range planning tool. It is updated every five years. Charlotte County’s existing plan was adopted in 2017 and according to County Administrator Dan Witt, it makes no reference to solar, aside from a vague general statement to the effect that Charlotte County will “encourage and assist in the development of alternative energy production.”
Witt said he did not expect to receive any recommendations from the planning commission for another 12 months – July or August 2023. Supervisors then would need time to review those recommendations and make changes, should they so desire.
In May 2021 — months before Charlotte County supervisors approved the 21,000-acre, 800-MW Randolph Solar Project, or the 2,100 acre, 240-MW Tall Pines Solar Project, — board members asked County Attorney Russell Slayton about imposing moratorium on solar.
Slayton advised against the move, explaining that local government moratoriums had been successfully challenged in court. Supervisors decided against imposing a moratorium at that time. Discussions on the topic were renewed in July during the protracted debate over Randolph Solar.
P.K. Pettus of Keysville was among the first to ask the board to delay any decision on Randolph Solar. At the time, she and others noted that Charlotte County had approved four utility-scale projects but none were completed or operational.
The four were the 150-megawatt Moody Creek Solar, the 15-megawatt Twitty’s Creek, the 16-megawatt Courthouse Solar, and the 5-megawatt Red House Solar.
Pettus explained then and again at an Aug. 8 public hearing on the Tall Pines conditional use permit application that she is not opposed to solar developments, but is concerned about the combined environmental impact of tree removal, land clearing and grading across thousands of acres for multiple solar projects in Charlotte County’s Roanoke Creek corridor.
Charlotte County’s six solar facilities cover a combined land mass of nearly 26,300 acres — roughly 8.5 percent of the county’s total acreage. All of the projects are expected to be built on land that was either farmed or timbered. Several of them are in the Roanoke Creek watershed.
According to a search by Pettus of records on file in the Charlotte County Clerk’s office, another 8,611 acres are under option for possible future solar projects. No company has filed an application for a conditional use permit on these lands — a precursor to possible development. Some of the sites also lie within the Roanoke Creek watershed.
Pettus said several of the recorded options would adjoin approved solar projects, “raising the possibility that approved projects could metastasize into something larger than originally planned.”
Charlotte County’s existing zoning ordinance limits the density for solar projects within a five-mile radius to no more than 3 percent. That limitation is regularly waived by supervisors when approving solar conditional use permit applications. Most recently it was waived for both Randolph Solar, approved in July, and Tall Pines, approved in August.
Pettus told supervisors that they and members of the planning commission “have not acknowledged inevitable environmental impacts from ‘green energy’ solar projects.”
While she agrees that the shift to renewable energy is necessary, Pettus said it needs to be done responsibly. Her definition of “responsibly” calls for local officials to “make the effort to obtain, review and discuss information [about environmental impacts] from sources other than solar landowner applicants, solar developers and their affiliated consultants.”
Throughout the Aug. 8 public hearing process for both Randolph Solar and Tall Pines, the majority of speakers were either solar developers, landowners whose property was under option for with the solar developers or consultants for the developers. They, as would be expected, spoke in favor of the solar facilities, touting their economic benefits.
Charlotte County is anticipating receiving more than $350 million in revenue over the next 35 years if the Courthouse Solar, Tall Pines and Randolph Solar projects become operational.
Pettus spoke about recent legislation in which the Virginia General Assembly recognized that solar projects affect the environment.
Del. Michael Webert’s HB 206, enacted earlier this year, calls for DEQ to analyze impacts on natural resources when it reviews applications for utility-scale solar installations up to 150 megawatts. The language added to Virginia Code sec. 10.1-1197.6 provides, “A project will be deemed to have a significant adverse impact if it would disturb more than 10 acres of prime agricultural soils or 50 acres of contiguous forest lands…”
The large solar installations in Charlotte County — Tall Pines, Randolph Solar and the 167 megawatt Courthouse Solar – are not subject to this requirement. Nevertheless, Pettus says it is the first time the state has acknowledged, in law, the need for mitigation practices to offset solar’s harmful impacts. She added that Charlotte County’s three largest projects will also “have lasting impacts on streams, wetlands, soils, wildlife movements and habitat.”
Pettus encouraged supervisors to reach out to the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources because they have already developed recommendations on ways to minimize the impacts of solar on animal habitats and the environment.
Dan Holmes, writing for the Piedmont Environmental Council in February, explained that “typical construction techniques for utility-scale solar include severe compaction of soils, hampering reversion back to productive agricultural lands and forests at the end of a project’s useful life.” He noted too that deforestation, which is required for solar fields, causes stored carbon to be released back into the atmosphere and is at “cross-purpose to our larger carbon reduction goals.”
The mission of the Piedmont Environmental Council is to promote and protect the natural resources, rural economy, history and beauty of the Virginia Piedmont. Holmes, on behalf of the Piedmont Environmental Council, lobbied for the passage of HB206
At the July meeting of supervisors, County Attorney Russell Slayton outlined four options for the board to consider before lifting the pause – eliminate solar as a permitted use in the county, halt solar zoning actions for a period of time, ask the planning commission to review solar zoning and make a recommendation or do nothing.
Wit said, “by consensus the Board did not want to remove solar as a permitted use and, to a lesser degree, did not want to continue with the status quo.”
The majority of the board ultimately agreed to seek recommendations from the planning commission about solar-related zoning. Until those recommendations are received the Board would halt all solar zoning actions. They additionally asked the Planning Commission to work with the county’s current solar consultants – The Berkley Group – with the expectation that the Berkley Group will help facilitate the delivery of zoning recommendations more quickly.