Vote put off on Randolph Solar; siting deal in works

Charlotte supes to meet again June 13 to study project details

After hearing from a divided public, the Charlotte County Board of Supervisors deferred action last week on a conditional use permit for the 800-megawatt Randolph Solar project that SolUnesco wants to build in southeast Charlotte County.

Charlotte County supervisors postponed a decision on the massive solar array at a special called meeting on June 1. Supervisors agreed to convene again for a June 13 special meeting, at which time the board expects to have a siting agreement with SolUnesco in hand.

Several citizens and board members raised questions at the June 1 meeting that are typically addressed in a siting agreement. Such agreements allow localities and solar developers to negotiate project conditions that address a wide range of concerns — everything from compensation to local governments to the mitigation of environmental impacts to the provision of related services, such as broadband internet.

Discussions about the siting agreement will take place in a closed session, not open to the public, starting at 5 p.m. June 13, ahead of the regularly scheduled monthly meeting of the Charlotte County Board of Supervisors.

The 20-plus speakers who addressed the board June 1 were nearly equally divided between those for and against the Randolph Solar Project. Some of the project backers who spoke up have land on which SolUnesco holds an option to install solar panels. Two of the speakers opposing the project were from outside Charlotte County and do not own land in the area.

Board of Supervisors Chair Gary Walker said the board also received a petition of support signed by 213 individuals, 67 additional letters of support, 13 letters in opposition and three from people asking for more information.

Speaking after the hearing, SolUnesco chairman Francis Hodsoll said, “We are grateful to Dominion Energy and to the supporters of Randolph Solar for their presence at the public hearing on June 1, as well as for the letters of support and public comments made. We are also very grateful to the county staff, Planning Commission, and Board of Supervisors, who have reviewed and engaged with the project for the past two years.”

During the hearing, it was revealed that the developers are asking to increase the fenced-in portion of Randolph Solar from 3,050 acres to 4,500 acres. The entire project, including land buffer, encompasses some 13,000 acres in the Saxe, Bacon and Charlotte Courthouse areas of Charlotte County.

Hodsoll said the increase in acreage was done to accommodate Dominion Energy, the future owner of the Randolph Solar Project. Officials with Dominion have asked SolUnesco to include all water retention ponds inside the project’s fenced area. Initially, Hodsoll said the ponds were placed outside the fenced area.

Hodsoll reminded supervisors that even with this expansion, around 6,000 acres of trees would be preserved in their natural state around the site.

Supervisor Hazel Smith asked about compensation to property owners whose lands would not ultimately become an active part of the solar field. Hodsoll replied, “We’ve made a commitment to pay everyone with an option.” SolUnesco has set aside around $3 million for landowners whose lands are under option but not used. After payment, the land will be released back to the owner.

Smith, as she has done during county planning commission hearings on the Randolph Solar Project, questioned Hodsoll about the need to potentially install solar panels on areas designated for a conservation easement. Hodsoll assured her this would not happen, pointing to one of the conditions recommended by the Charlotte County Planning Commission that would prohibit such an installation.

Hodsoll reiterated his contention that the scrutiny and preparation that have gone into the Randoph Solar project exceed anything he’s encountered with past projects. “Our work together has resulted in revisions to the conditions placed on the project, which, alongside the Charlotte County [zoning] ordinance, provide perhaps the most comprehensive list of conditions on any solar project in the state,” Hodsoll said.

More than once, audience members asked supervisors who would benefit financially from Randolph Solar. At least one speaker questioned Hodsoll’s claim that Charlotte County would see revenues of $246 million if Randolph Solar is built.

County Administrator Dan Witt explained that revenue calculations will be developed as part of the siting agreement under negotiation.

Speaking after the hearing, Hodsoll said, “At the public hearing, a question was raised about the $246 million voluntary payment we have offered to the county.” The amount, he said, will be paid on top of SolUnesco’s revenue sharing agreement with the county, which provides more money than Charlotte County would gain through property taxes.

“We’re happy to clarify that the revenue share payments over 35 years will total $68 million. What the $246 million includes is the upfront $20 million [payment with issuance of a conditional use permit], the benefit of the 2% [revenue] escalator, and the phasing of the project construction over five years.”

He said the average revenue to Charlotte County will be about $7 million per year, spread out over the 35-year life of the project.

Other questions raised during the public hearing centered on the disposal of degraded solar panels, the ability of first responders to access the property in the event of a fire or other emergency, traffic management during construction and the impact on local property values, particularly for neighbors who live adjacent to the project or whose properties are surrounded by it.

After hearing from the audience, Walker said “there are no black and white answers” to some of their questions. He asked the five other supervisors present at the meeting to defer a final decision on Randolph Solar pending discussion about the siting agreement.

All six board members concurred. Supervisor Will Garnett was not in attendance at the June 1 meeting.

While the siting agreement will be discussed at the June 13 meeting, Witt suggested that supervisors are unlikely to vote on the Randolph Solar Project as they already have a full agenda, with two previously scheduled public hearings on other matters.

Witt said the soonest the board could vote would be at a special called meeting on July 5. Or, the matter could be included on the agenda for the next regular monthly meeting on July 11.

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