IW planners oppose Moonlight solar farm

Published 3:55 pm Thursday, November 30, 2023

A 44-megawatt 523-acre solar farm proposed at Burwells Bay and Moonlight roads, dubbed Moonlight Solar LLC, received a unanimously unfavorable recommendation from Isle of Wight County’s Planning Commission on Nov. 28.

County supervisors, who have the final say on the matter, are slated to discuss and potentially vote on the proposal at their Dec. 14 meeting.

Representatives of Palladium Energy, the project’s Jacksonville, Florida-based developer, had asked the commissioners to defer voting on a recommendation until January to give the company additional time to mitigate multiple weaknesses identified in a report by county staff, among them its proximity to the in-progress 1,750-acre Cavalier solar farm spanning the Isle of Wight-Surry county border. But the commissioners were disinclined to wait.

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“They’re not going to bring anything back in January that’s going to make me change my mind,” said Commissioner Jennifer Boykin, who seconded Commissioner James Ford’s motion to recommend denial of Palladium’s requested conditional use permit.

In addition to the Moonlight solar farm’s half-mile distance from the 2021-approved Cavalier project, the county report took issue with Palladium’s plan to use Burwells Bay and Moonlight roads as the site’s construction access, contending both roads have minimal shoulders and deep ditches that would be unsafe for tractor-trailers hauling solar panels. The report further contends the project will impact 36 acres of “ecological cores,” or wildlife habitats, of “high importance,” and will initially be visible from historic homes, including the early 19th century Carroll Plantation house adjacent to the proposed site.

Chance Zajicek, development manager for Palladium, estimates the project would begin construction in 2027 if approved and be operational by later that year or in early 2028. He contends the project would have “minimal” impacts to ecological cores per a study performed earlier this year by Timmons Group for Palladium.

Palladium and county officials estimate the project would bring in $5.4 million in tax revenue over its estimated 40-year lifespan, $1.1 million of which would be paid to the county prior to the start of construction per the terms of a proposed siting agreement. The projected revenue would increase to $6.1 million over 40 years if the county approves a revenue sharing agreement in lieu of charging machinery and tools taxes.

Isle of Wight’s zoning ordinance contains a provision capping the cumulative acreage of solar farms in Isle of Wight to 2% of the county’s prime farm soils, or 2,446 acres. The county has approved nine solar farms since 2015 accounting for roughly 2,226 acres or 91% of the total.

According to Caleb Kitchen, the county’s project manager for the Moonlight project, the solar farm would place panels on another 274 acres of prime farmland per the U.S. Department of Agriculture definition, which defines the term as soils with the “best combination of physical and chemical characteristics” for growing crops.

Kitchen told The Smithfield Times by email on Nov. 21 that the addition of Moonlight would exceed the limit, bringing the total acreage to 2,500 or 2.04%, though he noted Palladium is technically not subject to the limit, as its May 16 application for the requested permit was received two days prior to the supervisors’ May 18 vote to add the 2% cap to the zoning ordinance.

Ahead of the vote, the planners held a public hearing on Moonlight that drew three speakers.

Jill Edwards, who urged support for the project, said she and her husband, George, are among the landowners who would lease their land to Palladium. George, a third-generation farmer, would continue to work the land not used for solar panels, she said.

The project also drew the support of Chesterfield activist Blake Cox, founder of the nonprofit Energy Right, which describes its mission as ensuring “energy is developed the right way with a focus on property rights and conservative ideals.” Cox had previously traveled to Isle of Wight in April to argue against the 2% cap.

The one opposition speaker, Steve Murphy of Burwells Bay Road, said he’d moved to Isle of Wight from a larger city for the country lifestyle, and “did not move out here to live next to a solar farm.” He, like county officials, raised concerns over tractor-trailer traffic on the narrow street, and asserted he and his neighbors on Windsor-based Community Electric Cooperative’s power grid wouldn’t benefit, as Palladium’s plans call for tying the Moonlight solar farm into a 230-kilovolt Surry-to-Chuckatuck line owned by Dominion Energy.