Planners OK 637-acre Zuni solar farm

Published 4:00 pm Friday, November 25, 2022

Isle of Wight County’s Planning Commission is recommending approval of a proposed 71-megawatt solar farm and substation in the Zuni area.

The proposed Carver Solar facility would span 20 parcels totaling 637 acres.

The included land straddles both sides of Route 460, with the solar farm’s proposed borders stretching from just over one mile east of the village of Zuni to just under a mile west of the town of Windsor.

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Texas-based Open Road Renewables subsidiary Carver Solar I LLC has applied for a conditional use permit on behalf of the 13 families who own the land.

The parcels are located off Yellow Hammer Road, Windsor Boulevard (Route 460), Winston Drive, Cut Thru Road, Ecelia Road, Barrett Town Road, Mill Creek Drive and Antioch Road.

According to Ryan Gilchrist, Open Road Renewables’ vice president of development, only 503 of the 637 acres would be fenced off with panels or related infrastructure. The rest of the land would be used for access easements or landscape buffering.

The 20 parcels, in their current agricultural state, generate just over $6,500 in real estate taxes per year. Open Road Renewables has forecast that the addition of solar panels and related infrastructure would bring just under $76,000 in real estate taxes per year, plus an average of $76,236 in machinery and tools tax revenue, for a cumulative $6.1 million over the project’s estimated 40-year lifespan.

In 2021, Virginia’s General Assembly passed a state law allowing localities to assess an additional payment of up to $1,400 per megawatt per year, which would increase 10% every five years beginning in 2026.

The company is further offering a $1,400 per megawatt per year revenue-sharing payment, which would bring the Carver Solar facility’s cumulative tax revenue to $9.2 million over 40 years.

The land’s agricultural use currently generates three jobs, while only two are proposed to be generated by the solar farm. However, an estimated 47 temporary jobs would be created during construction.

The project drew a mix of support and opposition at a Nov. 22 public hearing, held ahead of the Planning Commission’s vote that evening.

Nicholas Balice of Mill Creek Drive said he’d moved to Isle of Wight seeking a “quiet, rural area,” but would never have come had he known his home would be “in the middle of an energy plant.”

“The bottom line is solar panels are an eyesore,” Balice said.

Carter Garrison of Richmond, whose family is one of the 13 involved in the project, told the story of how his great-great-great-grandfather William Uzzle had moved to Isle of Wight from Southampton County in the 1860s. The Uzzle farm has been in his family ever since.

“Moving forward with this project is the best use of the land and what’s best for the family,” Garrison said.

Gayle Hobbs, whose family owns another of the farms that would become part of the solar project, argued that compared to cotton farms, solar farms are “heaven” since there’s “no spraying, no pesticides” and “no herbicides.”

Lenette Bishop of Deer Trail, which is near Mill Creek Drive, said she too would like to eventually leave her land to her children and contended that the presence of a solar farm nearby would negatively impact her property’s value.

A total of seven people spoke at the hearing, three in support, three opposed and one — David Tucker of Old Stage Highway on the county’s northern end — who did not specifically endorse nor oppose the project but rather urged that the company use domestically manufactured panels and partner with Paul D. Camp Community College’s solar photovoltaic installer training program.

Open Roads Senior Vice President Mike Volpe, responding to the speakers’ concerns, said his company’s research has shown “there will not be a negative impact” on property values, given that Open Roads had committed to a 200-foot minimum setback from Route 460, Cut Thru Road and any residential parcels.

Commissioner Bobby Bowser, citing that the Planning Commission had received an additional 10 letters, nine in support of the project, then made the motion to recommend the project’s approval, which passed 6-2 with Commissioners George Rawls and Raynard Gibbs absent. Commissioners Jennifer Boykin and Cynthia Taylor cast the dissenting votes.

The matter is headed to Isle of WIght’s Board of Supervisors on Jan. 19 for another public hearing and possible vote.

The Planning Commission’s approval comes with 16 staff-recommended conditions, among them that the panels qualify as non-hazardous waste via Environmental Protection Agency testing such as a Toxicity Characterization Leaching Procedure, or TCLP, which tests damaged and end-of-life panels to determine if they will leach toxic metals.

The commissioners further voted to mandate three additional conditions.

One requires that the company place its inverters, which convert the direct current electricity generated by the panels to the alternating current that feeds into the power grid, at least 500 feet back from any property lines to minimize noise levels.

The second requires the company to make a “reasonable best effort” to source its panels domestically. The third would require the company to establish a “pollinator meadow” for the benefit of a locally endangered bird species known as a lady slipper.

“The supply chain is becoming more and more robust. … We want to use made-in-America equipment,” Gilchrist said.

If approved, Carver would become the seventh utility-scale solar farm approved in the county.

Isle of Wight’s only operational solar farm, a 20-megawatt facility known as Woodland, occupies 180 acres off Longview Drive. It began generating power in 2017.

In 2018, Isle of Wight approved another 20-megawatt farm known as Solidago on 193 acres near the Isle of Wight County Courthouse.

The roughly 300-acre, 40-megawatt Ho-Fel farm near International Paper’s Franklin Mill received initial approval in 2019 and is proposing to expand, though the original project has yet to break ground.

The county also approved the 730-acre, 85-megawatt Windsor PV-1 farm in 2019. Windsor PV-1 would be located adjacent to the proposed Carver farm.

In 2021, Isle of Wight approved the 240-megawatt Cavalier farm, which will span 1,750 acres across the Isle of Wight-Surry county border.

This year, the county approved a sixth farm known as Nuby Run, which will generate 2 megawatts and occupy 20 acres on Orbit Road.

Carver, if approved, would likely be the last solar farm able to connect to the power grid in the Windsor area, Volpe said, noting that the project would push the carrying capacity of the grid in the area to its maximum.

The solar farm’s interconnection agreement with PJM, a regional transmission organization operating across 13 states and the District of Columbia, specifies that construction of Carver is to begin no later than 2025, Volpe said, and would likely take nine months to a year to become operational.