Surry planners reject Bacon’s Castle solar farm

Published 5:09 pm Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Surry County’s Planning Commission, on Jan. 24, recommended against allowing a solar farm to be built across the street from the 17th century Bacon’s Castle homestead.

Pine Gate Renewables, an Asheville, North Carolina-based company, proposes to construct a roughly 20-megawatt solar farm — under the name Surry Solar Center LLC — on a 220-acre tract at Route 10 and Bacon’s Castle Trail. According to Greg Davis, an attorney representing Pine Gate, the solar farm would be set back “more than a football field” from the road, and be partially hidden by a fence and landscape buffer.

The solar farm would occupy roughly 196 acres of the rural, agricultural-zoned parcel. It’s projected to bring $800,000 to the county in real estate taxes over its 40-year lifespan, compared to the $164,000 the county receives for the land currently.

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Surry Solar has requested a comprehensive plan amendment, rezoning, a conditional use permit and a determination from the Planning Commission that the proposal is “substantially in accord” with the revised comprehensive plan.

Surry’s 2040 Comprehensive Plan, which the county’s Board of Supervisors adopted in 2020, states solar facilities should be screened from routes 10 and 31 and “not visually impact scenic and cultural resources.” An ordinance Surry’s supervisors adopted in 2018 further requires solar farms to “avoid important historic, archaeological or cultural sites.”

“This comprehensive plan and this solar ordinance are not in agreement with what you’re proposing,” said Commissioner Diane Cheek.

The comprehensive plan’s purpose is to “save the integrity and way of life in Surry County,” said Planning Commission Chairman Eddie Brock. “In reviewing what this project is going to do — me, personally, I don’t see how that meets that requirement.”

Prior to voting on Surry Solar’s requests, the Planning Commission opened the floor for a public hearing, which drew two speakers, both in opposition to the proposed solar farm.

“This will absolutely be in my backyard,” said Steve Johnson of Bacon’s Castle Trail. “At what point are we going to stop? These solar farms are spreading all over this county like crazy.”

“What happens on a week like we’ve had here recently where the sun didn’t shine for a week — what are you going to do then?” asked John Brock, also of Bacon’s Castle Trail.

According to Davis, on cloudy days when the solar panels can’t harness sunlight, battery storage facilities take over to provide electricity in the interim.

The commissioners had initially discussed tabling the matter after the landowner, Hugh Epps, balked at learning the entire 220-acre parcel, and not just the 196-acre solar farm, would need to be rezoned M-1 industrial for the project to proceed. But Davis urged the commissioners to make a decision that evening, clarifying that Pine Gate, not Epps, would be responsible for paying the higher taxes associated with M-1 zoning, which had been Epps’ point of objection.

The commissioners ultimately voted unanimously — with Bacon’s Castle District member Thomas Hardy absent — to recommend denial of the requested comprehensive plan amendment. They then voted 9-0, with member Judy Lyttle abstaining, to recommend denial of the requested rezoning and the requested conditional use permit.

The commissioners then voted 9-0 to defer action on the requested “substantially in accord” determination, also with Lyttle abstaining. Lyttle declined to state why she’d abstained from the rezoning, conditional use permit or “substantially in accord” votes.

As the Planning Commission’s votes are only recommendations, the requested approvals will head to Surry’s Board of Supervisors for a final decision.