Planning commission recommends denying Grasshopper solar project

By a 7-2 vote on Thursday night the Mecklenburg County Planning Commission voted to recommend that the Mecklenburg Board of Supervisors deny a special exception permit for the Grasshopper solar project just outside of Chase City.
The move comes approximately eight months after Geenex first proposed the project.
Representatives of Geenex Solar, based in Charlotte, N.C., first approached the community with a series of introductory meetings held at the Estes Community Center in Chase City in November of last year. Geenex CEO Juergen Fehr was on hand to describe the 80-megawatt project to be located on a 946-acre site located on Route 49 at the northern end of town. The project would be located adjacent to the town.
Geenex was the second firm to announce plans for a solar “farm” in the Chase City area. Carolina Solar arrived on the scene in October to propose the Bluestone Solar Project, a slightly smaller project to be located on Spanish Grove Road, approximately 2 miles outside of Chase City.
The Bluestone project was granted a special exemption permit before members of the Mecklenburg County Board of Supervisors began expressing concerns about how the massive investments would impact the county and affect the county’s Composite Index, a formula the state uses to determine state and local funding shares for public school districts.
Initially, it appeared that under Virginia’s tax schedule on solar farms and related equipment, investments on the scale of the solar projects would result in a loss of state school funding.
In December, the supervisors voted to delay any further action until the county was able to gather more information about solar farms and their potential to impact the area. Consultants Gregory Haley and Darren Coffey were hired to provide additional information for the county.
In lengthy reports prepared by both Haley and Coffey, both consultants came to the conclusion that commercial scale solar energy plants are not in compliance with Mecklenburg County’s Comprehensive Plan and do not fit with the goals outlined in that document.
On Thursday night, Gregory Haley delivered an overview of the results he presented to the Planning Commission at its June meeting. He told the group that solar issues are new to the Commonwealth and are complicated from a land use perspective. He repeated that many of the aspects of commercial scale solar plants are inconsistent with the goals outlined in the county’s Comprehensive Plan.
Specific areas of conflict, he said, are mostly in terms of protecting farmland and agriculture in the area.
Also, Haley pointed out that the plan lists the types of industries the county will focus on, and commercial scale solar power generation is not part of that and in some cases conflicts with the goals outlined in the document. He also discussed the fact that the county has zoned some areas for industry and set up industrial parks throughout the county. The plan, he explained, does not provide for commercial scale solar generation projects.
Another concern expressed was over the process of shutting down and dismantling the solar plant at the end of its useful life, which is estimated at 40 years. Haley said that if the project is approved, provisions need to be provided to ensure that the money to decommission the project would be more specifically outlined to guarantee that funding will be available.
Haley also told the group that should Mecklenburg decide to allow solar farms in the area, changes should be made to the Comprehensive Plan to include and provide for the addition of solar power as an industry in the county.
Ann-Neil Cosby, an attorney with McGuireWoods representing Geenex, told the group that the company has acted in good faith and provided all of the information asked of it. She said the company wants to work with the county and added that the project does not conflict with any of the provisions of the Comprehensive Plan and that the Grasshopper Project has wide support in the Chase City area.
Cosby pointed out that the Comprehensive Plan does not say anything about the location of solar facilities and added that this is not the first time the company has run into this issue. She told the group that in similar cases the company has assisted localities with wording changes that would permit solar facilities to locate in specific areas without conflicts with their plans.
“We’re asking the same thing as before,” said Cosby. “I don’t think anything has changed.”
While she said she realizes that staff has proposed changes to zoning and ordinances to dissuade solar projects, she hopes the county will consider this request under the same rules that were in place when the original application was filed.
She concluded by pointing out that the company would accept the conditions suggested and that the company wants to work with the county. She said the company supports preserving agriculture and saving farmland but asked if the county wanted all of the land for farm use.
“A parcel can’t be both,” she said.
Tommy Nelson of BayWa, the company that has taken over the project started by Geenex, told the group that fears that the county will soon be covered with solar power facilities are unfounded because there is limited capacity on transmission lines. Once that capacity is reached, any new projects would require large and expensive upgrades to the transmission system and that, he said, is too costly for any project to handle.
“There will not be an endless stream of solar farms,” said Nelson.
Nelson told the group that although he could not give the group a fixed number of projects that the existing infrastructure could handle, the number does have a limit and that limit is much smaller than most people realize.
Nelson concluded by saying there is enough land in the region for both agriculture and solar generation. He pointed out that North Carolina ranks No. 2 in the country for solar generation and that less than 2 percent of land previously used for farming has gone for solar use.
Opening the floor for a public hearing on the application, five people spoke, four in favor of the project and one opposed.
Mac Bailey, owner of the land on which the project would be located, described the history of the farm and how he came to acquire it from George Spaulding. Now, said Bailey, he is “getting up in years” and had been approached by Geenex with an offer to rent the property. Bailey told them he wasn’t interested in renting but would consider selling.
Bailey said that solar generation does not impact the environment and does not hurt anyone or anything.
“It’s the coming thing,” said Bailey.
Bailey also told the group that he had invested time, work and money in the property and “I’d like to see some return for my hard work.” He added that although he had been told he could not sell his land to the company, no one had told him why. He feels, he said, that he should be able to do what he wants with his property.
Charles Willis, a lifetime Chase City resident and member of the Chase City Town Council, told the group that “the land in question, all my life, has been power line with occasional cattle.” A solar farm, he added, would not make a lot of difference.
Willis also quoted statistics that show Mecklenburg has seen a 4.2 percent decrease in population over the last 10 years, and the loss has doubled in the last two years.
“I don’t see any other industry coming forward in the foreseeable future,” said Willis. “I haven’t seen any real estate developer wanting to develop property for houses. We have to change. None of us want to limit the opportunities for our young people or see them leave.”
He added that the Grasshopper Project would be “a great asset” to the renewable energy market.
Willis compared the current situation with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers securing 115,000 acres for the formation of Kerr (Buggs Island) Lake in the late ’40s and early ’50s.
“There was a lot of opposition, but there had to be a change made, and look what it’s done for this county,” said Willis. “This is the next logical step. We should be taking advantage of this opportunity.”
Mozine Lowe, executive director for the Center for Energy Education, told the group that the company wants to bring education about the solar industry to the area. Lowe talked about the growth of solar power in Virginia, the growing number of jobs related to that industry and how the Center for Energy Education hopes to work with the local community college system to provide training for those jobs.
Brian Crutchfield, a civil engineer and landowner in Mecklenburg, told the planning commission that he would be working with the company on storm water and sediment control plans.
“I’ve done a lot of work with the company,” said Crutchfield. “They’re a class organization. I think they would be an asset. Mecklenburg would be better off to have them.”
Speaking against the project was a Chase City resident who lives adjacent to the proposed site. While Kathy Keel said that the company had worked with her to allay her fears about it affecting her property, she still opposes the project.
“I don’t think it’s good for the town of Chase City,” she said.
Keel talked about the natural beauty of the area and how the site would be seen by anyone entering the town.
“I hope you do make them do the vegetative barrier so I don’t have to see it,” she said. “All of the people who have spoken don’t live in the county expect for Charles Willis.”
Keel added that the company would “get their money, doing nothing for Chase City or Mecklenburg. The jobs are going to get done and be gone.”
She added that surrounding the town with solar panels is “not what we want for this county.”
“Make them do something for us,” she said. “What are we getting?”
Keel concluded by saying she had been generally impressed by the people she had dealt with but that there interests are not in the community’s best interests.
She added that she felt Chase City had erred in recruitment efforts in the past, citing Sherwood Foods and Star Scientific as companies that failed to deliver on their promises, costing the town and county and the citizens.
“I haven’t seen any improvements in this town,” said Keel. “We’re going to be here, and they’re going to be gone.”
The full board of supervisors is expected to consider the planning commission’s recommendation at its next meeting.