Solar farms wanting to locate on Suffolk farms are likely to have a difficult time for the foreseeable future, as City Council unanimously denied a conditional use permit for one in Whaleyville.
In its June 16 vote, council members signaled to solar farm developers that the city is not ready to handle the increasing requests for them until the city develops better guidelines for them. While council members did not say they are inherently opposed to solar energy, they said they are not ready to sign off on them without providing more guidance to solar farm developers and residents about them.
“Our Planning Department is not ready for this,” said Councilman Tim Johnson before the vote. “We don’t even understand what we’re talking about with this solar thing going forward. We have got to do our homework. We have got to do our research. It’s not really fair to the solar people either. We need to tell them what we want in our city. We do not want solar farms backing up (to) homes. … We as a city are not ready for this.”
Johnson, who said he has been approached on multiple occasions to use his farm for a solar farm, said solar panels should be going on buildings first before going on farms.
Chaberton Solar Whitney, which applied for the conditional use permit, was seeking to put a three-megawatt solar farm on a 108-acre property owned by Adam Rountree and Brandon Simpson. It was to be located on the 24 acres in the southeast quadrant of the intersection between Great Fork Road and Lucy Cross Road. Chaberton is a local development affiliate of Greenbacker Capital, which operates more than 1,000 megawatts of solar and wind energy across the United States.
There would have been two separate solar facilities on the site, a one-megawatt facility and a two-megawatt facility, and it was to take up 15 of the 24 acres.
Councilwoman Shelley Butler Barlow, who also owns a farm, said the city needs a comprehensive plan for solar farm development, saying the current process is not fair to anyone.
“I think converting agricultural land to collecting solar energy, it’s a sideways trade to green energy,” Butler Barlow said.
Alluding to Speroni’s comment, she said if it’s not feasible to keep agricultural land in production, it’s because more solar companies are being subsidized by the government to a point where she can’t pay rent with the amount of money they’re offering landowners.
“It’s not economically viable for the landowner,” Butler Barlow said. “It’s not economically viable for me to compete with the amount of money they’re offering.”
Councilman Roger Fawcett said he likes the idea of renewable energy, but he said he is concerned about traffic — especially with trucks on U.S. Route 13 in that area, and he doesn’t believe residents in that area would benefit from it. He said there may be other, more suitable sites, and doesn’t understand why there has been so much interest in bringing solar farms to Suffolk.
“We are getting a lot of interest in Suffolk for solar panels to come on,” Fawcett said. “And that’s because we have such a great and rich area of land, 430 square miles, in the city. We get a little concerned because as I go down in the Carolinas I see these solar farms everywhere. It just blows my mind. I don’t think this solar farm provides any benefit to the residents of Whaleyville.”
The project was designed to support the state’s Clean Economy Act, which the General Assembly passed last April, requiring Dominion Energy Virginia to have 100% renewable energy by 2045 and Appalachian Power to have it by 2050. It also requires nearly all coal-fired plants to close by the end of 2024.
While he said renewable energy is state-mandated, “one part they didn’t mandate is where you put them.”
Councilmembers also took exception to a comment from Martin Speroni, an attorney with Saunders & Ojeda in Suffolk representing the project applicants. He outlined what he said were three main issues from opponents of the project — environmental concerns about panels with heavy metals, that it would be too loud and it would be too unsightly. He then mentioned a fourth concern, that it would compete with farming.
“I am told that the site is too small to be farmed efficiently,” Speroni said. “And so it will not necessarily compete in the future with farming.”
Johnson was one of those who did not take kindly to the comment.
“Please don’t come to me and tell me that farm is too small to be profitable,” Johnson said. “…They’ve been farming these small pieces of land their whole lives, and maybe they don’t make a ton of money on them, but they can be farmed. Or better yet you can sit on your patio and enjoy the vista.”
Plans were to install ground-mounted solar arrays up to 10 feet tall, a seven-foot chain-link fence and a 50-foot wide vegetative buffer adjacent to the western properties, a 25-foot vegetative landscape buffer to the north at Lucy Cross Road and a 50-foot setback to any nearby properties.
Even after modifications to address sound and other concerns from nearby residents and Great Fork Baptist Church, the Planning Commission voted 6-1 against recommending a conditional use permit for the project, and voted 5-2 not to table its consideration a second time.
The modifications included having its 24 string inverters no closer than 450 feet to any adjacent properties, rather than the 150 feet it had initially proposed, and agreeing to move the transformer to 650 feet away from the closest home.
Sightlines were to include four different types of trees throughout the perimeter of the solar farm that was to start out being six to eight feet, and growing to 15 to 30 feet, at a cost of $100,000, according to Michael Doniger, vice president of Chaberton Solar Energy. Existing boundaries at the eastern and southern borders would have been preserved.
All but one resident who spoke during a public hearing opposed the solar farm. Several said they did not want it located close to residents in the area.
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