Surry supervisors delay vote on solar acreage limit

Published 3:07 pm Tuesday, March 7, 2023

Surry supervisors have postponed voting on an “energy policy” amendment to the county’s 2040 Comprehensive Plan that would limit utility-scale projects to 10% of the county’s developable land.

Surry’s Planning Commission voted in February to recommend the supervisors approve it, but the proposal met pushback at the supervisors’ March 2 public hearing.

The amendment, while intended to be inclusive of all energy sources, is aimed primarily at limiting the number and location of new solar farms. It would set a maximum of 15,278 acres, not counting water and wetlands, as the cumulative amount of land allocated for energy projects. Of this, 9,263 acres are already taken up by existing and approved utility-scale solar farms and Dominion Energy’s nuclear plant. Another 22.8-acre parcel at the Surry-Sussex county line is slated for Align RNG’s “biogas” processing facility. If approved, the amendment would leave just under 6,000 acres available for future projects.

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Sam Edwards III, a longtime businessman in Surry, argued the proposal as written “creates a model for future infringement on landowners’ rights.”

“Whether it’s solar, you want an RV park, you want to build a meat-processing plant, if somebody doesn’t like how it looks they can come and get enough people together and prevent these projects from taking off,” said Edwards, who in 2021 sold his family’s 95-year-old ham-curing business to Missouri-based Burgers’ Smokehouse amid a five-year battle with his insurance company following a 2016 fire.

The hearing also drew a representative from AES, the Arlington-based company developing the 240-megawatt Cavalier solar farm approved in 2021 to span 1,750 acres across Surry’s border with Isle of Wight County.

The 10% cap is a “reasonable number,” said Greg Creswell, senior development manager for AES, provided it defines a “project site” as the fenced-in acreage rather than the entirety of the parcels on which the solar farm is located. Currently, the proposed amendment defines the term as the entirety of the parcels.

Former Surry Supervisor Michael Drewry, who resigned his seat in 2022 over the approval of the Align RNG biogas project, urged the supervisors to keep the present requirement that solar developers apply for the land’s rezoning.

Currently, in addition to the rezoning, solar developers must apply for a land-use map amendment, a conditional use permit and a determination by the Planning Commission that the project is “substantially in accord” with the Comprehensive Plan. Horace Wade, Surry’s director of planning and community development, had stated in January that the approval process may eventually change to do away with the need for rezoning or a land-use map amendment.

“Developers don’t like (rezoning), but it protects the citizens,” Drewry said.

Edwards, Creswell and Drewry were the only three speakers. At the conclusion of the hearing, Supervisors Judy Lyttle and Breyon Pierce each stated they weren’t ready to vote on the proposed policy that evening. Supervisor Timothy Calhoun, who works for Dominion Energy, said he would need to abstain from any vote.