IW Planning Commission urges ‘no’ on two solar farms

Published 6:35 pm Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Reducing the footprint of a 44-megawatt solar farm proposed for Burwells Bay and Moonlight roads didn’t win over Isle of Wight County’s Planning Commission.

The commissioners, for the second time in six months, voted unanimously on May 28 to recommend denial of Jacksonville-based Palladium Energy’s requested conditional use permit for Moonlight Solar, which seeks to withdraw approximately 523 acres from agricultural use. County supervisors, who have the final say, had sent Palladium’s application back to the commissioners in March after Palladium proposed a slate of changes.

An equally skeptical 6-2 majority of commissioners voted, also on May 28, to recommend denial of Arlington-based AES Corp.’s application for a larger, 240-megawatt solar farm dubbed Sycamore Cross, which would span more than 2,400 acres across the westernmost edge of the Isle of Wight-Surry county line, 5 miles from Moonlight and adjacent to the 2021-approved, 1,750-acre Cavalier solar farm that already straddles the border.

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“This in culmination with Cavalier and the possibility of Sycamore Cross is not solar farming; this is industrial solar and miles, and miles, and miles and miles of solar panels,” said Commissioner Brian Carroll, who made the motion to recommend denial for Moonlight.

Commissioner Jennifer Boykin, who seconded Carroll’s motion, made her own motions to recommend denial for two separate applications for Sycamore, dubbed Sycamore Cross A and B, which Commissioner George Rawls seconded. Commissioner James Ford and Commission Chairman Bobby Bowser cast the dissenting votes on Sycamore.

Bowser said he preferred to table Sycamore’s applications.

A third solar farm proposal by Elk Development LLC for 94.2 acres off Old Stage Highway, just under a mile from Hardy Elementary, was struck from the May 29 meeting agenda after Isle of Wight Community Development Director Amy Ring told the commissioners her department was “researching some outstanding issues” and needed to re-advertise the required public hearing for June 25.


‘Neighbors against neighbors’

Four months after the commission’s initial November vote recommending denial for Moonlight, county supervisors, who have the final say over all three solar farm proposals, sent Palladium’s application back to the commission in March, asking that the commissioners review a slate of changes the company had proposed in hopes of mitigating concerns by county staff that included environmental impacts.

Palladium has proposed 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 generating capacity. Of the 523-acre project site, 231 acres of 44% would be fenced and host panels, down from 250 originally. The project now proposes to take 242 acres of prime farmland out of agricultural use, down from the original 274.

The Isle of Wight County Sheriff’s Office, however, contends it still has concerns over the company’s plans to use Burwells Bay and Moonlight roads for site access, contending they’re both too narrow for larger vehicles like school buses to pass trucks hauling solar panels.

Chance Zajicek, development manager for Palladium, has proposed a mitigation plan that calls for temporary signage along the construction route, Virginia Department of Transportation-certified flaggers and a four-week traffic study to determine the optimal travel times to minimize the chance of a truck meeting a farm vehicle or school bus headed the opposite direction.

“Those roads they’re talking about that can’t handle any tractor-trailers, I sell 50-plus tractor-trailers of corn and grain a year on that same route with no pilot car, no signs,” said George Edwards, the landowner under contract to lease to Palladium, at a public hearing that drew 10 speakers, all but two in opposition, prior to the commission’s vote.

“I am a farmer; I do not have a job somewhere else and do farming on the side that I’m going to have an elaborate retirement when I’m done, and my age is getting there,” Edwards said. “This is a way for me to make money, yes; this is a way for the county to make money. Y’all see that. I’m not like the other people standing behind me that have jobs somewhere else. I’m not telling none of those people what to do with their property.”

Moonlight, according to county estimates, would generate $3.2 million in tax revenue over its estimated 40-year lifespan plus $1.1 million in 2028, its first proposed year of operation, per a siting agreement that specifies a $25,000-per-megawatt upfront payment.

Blake Cox of Chesterfield, co-founder of the pro-solar advocacy organization Energy Right, was the only other speaker to urge support for the project, citing landowner rights.

Speakers in opposition included Gerald Gwaltney, the county’s commissioner of the revenue, who spoke as a private citizen and the owner of a 128-acre century farm adjacent to the proposed project site.

“What about the property rights of my family who have lived on the farm for 149 years?” Gwaltney said, characterizing the project as an “industrial site.”

“This last storm that came through Smithfield this last weekend, Burwells Bay Road flooded, part of Moonlight Road flooded. … Now we’re looking at covering approximately 300 acres of soil that can absorb water,” said Steve Murphy of Burwells Bay Road, referencing a 2022 Virginia Department of Environmental Quality memorandum that reclassified solar panels as impervious surfaces subject to state stormwater runoff rules.

Carroll said his vote was guided by the county’s long-range interest.

“This is painful for me living in that neighborhood; it’s more painful that what I see is neighbors against neighbors, family members against family members, but I think what this boils down to is the future of our county and what we want that future of our county to look like,” he said following the hearing.


‘Nobody’s forcing farmers’

Sycamore Cross A and B, which total 2,035 acres, would front six different roads, including the project namesake Sycamore Cross Drive. If approved, Sycamore Cross would become the 10th and largest solar farm in the county.

By 8:20 p.m., nearly 2½ hours after the start of the meeting, the crowd that turned out for the Moonlight public hearing had thinned and those who remained for the Sycamore Cross hearing largely supported the project.

“Nobody’s forcing farmers to give it up; it’s their land and it’s the best decision in some cases,” said John Brown, one of 14 landowners who have partnered with AES to lease or sell acreage for the project.

Brown was one of eight speakers, two of whom said they opposed the project.

When Christine Sizemore of Ivor found herself widowed at age 56 and left to care for her family’s 76-acre farm alone, she too was approached by AES, and turned down the company twice before agreeing to sell her land and remarrying.

“People have been pitted against each other. … We love the farm in our community and we pray that those opposed will look through the lenses of my circumstances and not their own,” Sizemore said.

Chris Edwards, chief of Smithfield’s Volunteer Fire Department, reiterated concerns he’d raised during the Moonlight hearing over the potential for brush fires, referencing a May 1 blaze at a solar farm in Chesapeake.

“The fire that they had in Chesapeake comes from connections on the bottoms of the solar panels,” Edwards said. “They get hot; they’re rubber and they’re plastic. The rubber starts burning, the fire drips down on the grass and starts the grass on fire.”

County staff, however, joined the commissioners in recommending denial. According to an analysis by Ring, Sycamore Cross could impact up to 139 acres of “high priority forestland” and would remove 614 acres of prime farmland from agricultural use.

County supervisors amended Isle of Wight’s zoning ordinance 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. According to Ring, Sycamore Cross would surpass the threshold, bringing the total to 2.66%, not accounting for Moonlight.

Commissioner Cynthia Taylor noted the county’s agricultural/forestal district advisory committee had, for the first time ever, voted earlier this year against allowing Sycamore Cross to withdraw 860 acres from the Moonlight Agricultural and Forestal District, which formed in 2012 to allow landowners special land use tax rates in exchange for a pledge to keep their land in agricultural or forestal use. Carroll, who in addition to the Planning Commission serves on the agricultural and forestal district committee, had in 2023 described withdrawal votes as a “formality” given that landowner participation in a district is voluntary.

That the committee set a precedent by voting against Sycamore’s withdrawal request “makes me stop and think,” Taylor said.

Moonlight’s and Sycamore’s applications are each scheduled to go to the supervisors for a possible final vote on June 13.