Isle of Wight planners set new hearing for Moonlight solar farm

Published 12:17 pm Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Isle of Wight County residents will get a second opportunity on May 28 to weigh in on a proposed 44-megawatt solar farm at Burwells Bay and Moonlight roads.

The county’s Planning Commission voted 7-2 on April 23 to schedule a new public hearing for May 28 prior to revoting on Jacksonville, Florida-based Palladium Energy’s conditional use permit application for Moonlight Solar LLC.

The commissioners voted unanimously in November to recommend denial of the requested permit after county staff identified multiple weaknesses, including environmental impacts and a “multiplicity and saturation of similar uses” due to the project’s half-mile proximity to the 2021-approved Cavalier solar farm. The Board of Supervisors, which has the final say in the matter, sent Palladium’s application back to the Planning Commission in March after Palladium proposed changes aimed at mitigating the county’s concerns.

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Palladium proposes to reduce from 36 acres to 8.9 the impact to “ecological cores,” or wildlife habitats of “high importance,” by using larger solar panels spread over a smaller footprint to reduce the fenced acreage while maintaining the same nameplate generating capacity.

Of the 523-acre project site, 231 acres, or 44%, would be fenced and host solar panels, down from 250 acres originally. The project is now proposed to take 242 acres of prime farmland out of agricultural use, down from the original 274. Isle of Wight, which has approved nine solar farms since 2015, amended its zoning ordinance last year to include a 2,446-acre, or 2%, cap on the cumulative amount of prime farmland devoted to solar, just over 2,200 of which are already spoken for.

While Palladium “has made an honest effort to address most of the issues,” the Isle of Wight County Sheriff’s Office still has “major concerns” over the company’s plan to use Burwells Bay and Moonlight roads for site access, states an April 11 memorandum from Sheriff’s Office Maj. Joseph Willard to county project manager Caleb Kitchen.

The two roads, Willard contends, have no shoulders and are too narrow to allow larger vehicles such as farm equipment, school buses and trucks hauling solar panels to pass each other. His memo proposes prohibiting movement of any large vehicles connected with the project during school bus operating hours.

“The Cavalier project was a learning curve where we have since seen mailboxes destroyed, roadway infrastructure damaged, household animals being struck and killed, construction vehicles consistently using routes outside of their approved construction route, and these same vehicles backing in and out of private driveways, blocking portions of the road,” said Kitchen, adding that he himself recently ran over the edge of the asphalt when passing an 18-wheeler associated with Cavalier. The tractor-trailer also veered off the asphalt when the two met in the vicinity of Pons Road and Jones Drive, both of which are construction routes for the Cavalier project, he said.

Planning Commissioner Brian Carroll, who proposed holding the second public hearing, said he is still inclined at this point to vote against Moonlight Solar. Carroll said he’d like to see a sound study for Moonlight.

“One of the biggest concerns I have right now is the fact that for my 52 years of living in this same place, I can walk out the door in the morning and hear nothing but the animals, and now as Cavalier is up and testing, I walk out the door and hear the roar of what I assume to be the transformer fans that are some three miles away from my house,” Carroll said. “And I hear them very clearly every time they’re running, and that is discouraging for a project that is not supposed to put off sound.”

Commissioner Jennifer Boykin seconded Carroll’s motion to hold a second public hearing, which is allowed but not required under state law. Commissioners Thomas Distefano and Cynthia Taylor each voted against Carroll’s motion.