IW planners again postpone Prairie Solar decision

Published 11:14 am Monday, April 3, 2023

Isle of Wight County’s Planning Commission has – for a second month – postponed voting on a proposed 432-acre solar farm along Longview Drive.

Energix, an Israeli company with U.S. offices in Arlington, is seeking a conditional use permit for a 20-megawatt facility named “Prairie Solar,” which would be located within one to two miles of the existing 180-acre Woodland solar farm, also on Longview Drive. Woodland is the only operational solar farm in Isle of Wight County, though a total of six have been approved.

The project had drawn near-unanimous opposition at a Feb. 28 public hearing. According to County Attorney Bobby Jones, under state law the Planning Commission has until June 8, or 100 days from the application’s submittal, to make a recommendation. If the planners do not vote by that date, the project will head to county supervisors for a final vote with an automatic recommendation for approval.

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The postponement wasn’t unanimous. Planning Commission Chairman Brian Carroll and Commissioner Cynthia Taylor voted against the delay.

Commissioner Thomas Distefano, citing a draft ordinance that would limit the cumulative acreage of existing and proposed solar farms in the county to 2% of Isle of Wight’s prime farmland, and the pending formation of an “energy task force,” had pushed for tabling Prairie’s application in February.

Carroll, at the March 28 meeting, cited the county’s lack of progress in forming the task force for his opposition to a second postponement of the Prairie decision. As of March, county supervisors had appointed just four of the task force’s seven members.

Carroll contended the commission had an “obligation” to make a decision on Prairie, and he expressed doubt that the task force, once fully formed, would make any recommendations before May 23 – the last regularly scheduled Planning Commission meeting ahead of the June 8 deadline.

Taylor said she believed the Planning Commission had already done its due diligence in recommending the 2% prime farmland cap and the formation of the energy task force.

Commissioner Jennifer Boykin, however, pushed to table the Prairie decision until April and asked that information be provided on solar farm fires and the county’s ability to combat them. A fire, she said, had recently occurred at a solar farm in the Spring Grove area of neighboring Surry County.

Surry County Sheriff Carlos Turner confirmed to The Smithfield Times that a March 16 fire occurred at a solar site near Beaverdam Road. There are two adjacent solar farms – known as Spring Grove Solar LLC and Colonial Trail West – bordering the road. Both were approved in 2018 and, combined, generate 400 megawatts over nearly 4,000 acres.

Allie Ondash, a project development associate with Energix, told planning commissioners during the March 28 meeting’s public comment period that 109 acres of the Prairie project would be on “prime” farmland. The term, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, refers to land with the “best combination of physical and chemical characteristics” for growing crops. Even with the 109 prime acres, Prairie would stay within the 2% cap, Ondash contended.

Rusty Rose, representing Prairie landowner Everets Properties, also urged the commissioners during the public comment period to approve the project.

Editor’s note: This story was updated to include comments by Surry County Sheriff Carlos Turner.