IW Planning Commission urges ‘no’ on Old Stage Highway solar farm

Published 11:48 am Wednesday, June 26, 2024

A month after opposing two solar farms, Isle of Wight County’s Planning Commission recommended rejection of a third.

The commission voted unanimously on June 25 to urge county supervisors to deny a permit for the project.

Denver-based Pivot Energy subsidiary Elk Development LLC landowners William Pennie Jr. and Teresa Crocker have applied for a conditional use permit for a 3-megawatt solar farm on 27.32 acres bordering Old Stage Highway and Morgarts Beach Road, just under a mile from Hardy Elementary and adjacent to more than 100 homes in the Wrenn’s Mill neighborhood.

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“I live in Wrenn’s Mill and to see something like this right across the street from me is almost like a dagger in my heart because it’s so close to us; we’ve got a whole neighborhood right there,” said Planning Commission Chairman Bobby Bowser, who made the motion for denial that passed unanimously.

Bowser’s predecessor as chairman, Brian Carroll, also criticized Pivot for presenting a last-minute change to the site plan that hadn’t been included in the meeting’s agenda.

“A revision to a plan presented two months ago that they’ve been working on for four years should not have taken place this morning,” Carroll said.

After county staff issued a report urging denial, citing 27 acres of cropland being taken out of agricultural use and the site’s proximity to the circa-1750 Bourne-Turner house, Pivot project development manager Robert Hickox proposed an alternative solar panel layout he said would put 9 acres of farmland back into production and increase from 1,100 feet to 1,500 the fenced area’s distance from the Bourne-Turner house.

Isle of Wight County supervisors enacted a zoning ordinance change last year imposing a 2%, or 2,446-acre, cap on the cumulative prime farmland devoted to solar. The nine solar farms Isle of Wight has approved since 2015 collectively account for just over 2,200 acres, or 91%. According to the report by county staff, the Old Stage Highway project site includes 6 acres of prime farmland, though only four would be inside the fenced area.

Prior to the vote, a same-day public hearing drew nine speakers, two of whom said they supported the project.

“You guys wouldn’t want it in your back yard; I don’t want it in mine,” said Cindy Rowell, a Wrenn’s Mill resident.

“We moved here 20 years ago to grow our family, to be out in the country … . This is not going to be that for us anymore,” said Kristen Burgess, also of Wrenn’s Mill.

Among the project’s supporters is Michael Kiser, who owns and lives in the Bourne-Turner house and said he and other area residents could benefit from the additional electricity the proposed solar farm would feed into the power grid.

“I routinely have lost power multiple times to my home for hours on end and I’m excited about this improvement in infrastructure,” Kiser said.

According to Hickox, the Old Stage Highway project would generate $226,500 in real estate and machinery and tools taxes over a 25-year lifespan, an additional $135,000 upfront payment Pivot is offering in a siting agreement, and $15,000 donations to the Isle of Wight County Museum and Virginia Cooperative Extension 4-H program. Hickox also said Pivot’s business model precludes future expansion.

“Pivot’s model is 3 megawatts and that’s it,” Hickox said. “We like to keep them on one parcel.”

The Planning Commission, in May, recommended denial of a 44-megawatt project dubbed Moonlight Solar at Moonlight and Burwells Bay roads and Sycamore Cross, which would span more than 2,400 acres across the westernmost edge of the Isle of Wight-Surry county line. The supervisors, on June 13, upheld the Planning Commission’s recommendation on Moonlight but have deferred voting on Sycamore at the developer’s request.

According to County Attorney Bobby Jones, a change in state law pertaining to meeting advertisements will delay the project going to supervisors until Aug. 15.