IW planners split 6-4 on Courthouse Highway solar farm

Published 6:20 pm Thursday, October 26, 2023

Isle of Wight County’s Planning Commission split 6-4 when voting Oct. 24 to recommend the approval of a solar farm that would be among the county’s smallest.

Commissioners Bobby Bowser, Thomas Distefano, James Ford, Cynthia Taylor, Raynard Gibbs and Matthew Smith each voted in favor of Bowser’s motion to recommend approval. Commissioners Jennifer Boykin, George Rawls, Rick Sienkiewicz and Chairman Brian Carroll cast dissenting votes.

The commissioners had deadlocked in an earlier vote that evening on a motion by Boykin to recommend denial of landowner Michael Doggett’s application for a conditional use permit. 

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Ford, Rawls, Sienkiewicz and Carroll each joined Boykin in supporting her motion, resulting in a 5-5 tie. Ford then voted with Bowser in favor of the approval recommendation.

Doggett had applied in March for a conditional use permit that would allow the solar farm to occupy up to 18 acres of his 148-acre farm bordering Courthouse Highway and Poorhouse Road, roughly half a mile from the county courthouse and government complex. The location is also just over a mile north of the 20-megawatt, 170-acre Solidago solar farm county supervisors approved in 2018.

Doggett’s application listed Massachusetts-based New Leaf Energy as the 3-megawatt project’s developer. According to Jessie Robinson, New Leaf’s senior project developer, only 14.2 of the 18 acres would be fenced and receive solar panels. The other roughly 130 acres would remain in agricultural use.

Courthouse Hwy Solar 1 LLC, as the project has been named, was one of three 3-megawatt solar farm applications submitted to the county during a four-week period spanning March and April. According to Robinson, the Virginia Clean Economy Act, a 2020 state law, may be spurring the influx of smaller projects.

The act mandates that Dominion Energy produce its electricity from 100% renewable sources by 2045. It also includes a provision that calls for the company to procure 1,100 megawatts from 1- to 3-megawatt solar farms by 2035, Robinson said.

County supervisors in May adopted an ordinance capping the cumulative acreage of existing and proposed solar farms to 2% of the county’s prime farm soils, or a maximum of 2,446 acres. The supervisors have approved eight solar farms since 2015 that collectively account for roughly 2,208 acres, or 1.8%, of the county’s prime farmland.

Doggett’s application described the 18-acre site as the “worst performing piece of ground on the property,” and states it has “only been used for hay.”

According to an economic impact analysis submitted with Doggett’s application, the solar farm is projected to generate $146,717 in real estate tax revenue over its 40-year lifespan and an additional $274,085 in machinery and tools tax revenue during the same four decades.

The county, by comparison, received roughly $51 in real estate taxes for the 18 acres under Isle of Wight’s former tax rate of 85 cents per $100 in valuation, according to the analysis. County supervisors voted to lower the rate to 71 cents earlier this year, citing an average 34% rise in single-family home valuations from this year’s reassessment.

A public hearing on the solar farm ahead of the vote drew two speakers: Doggett and Courthouse Highway resident Jean Doggett Moody. Doggett spoke in support of his application while Moody opposed the project as being in conflict with a circa-2003 village center plan for the area surrounding the courthouse.

The matter will be on the supervisors’ Nov. 16 meeting agenda.