POWHATAN – The Powhatan County Board of Supervisors recently voted to unanimously approve a conditional use permit for a new 20-megawatt solar farm, but discussion surrounding the project showed the supervisors might be rethinking where these kinds of projects really fit into the county moving forward.
During the board’s meeting on Monday, Feb. 22, the supervisors voted 4-0 in favor of granting the conditional use permit (CUP) to North Ridge Powhatan Solar LLC. When built, the project could generate enough electricity for approximately 3,500 to 4,000 homes each year.
The project will be located on the north side of Anderson Highway (Route 60) northwest of its intersection with Rocky Oak Road near Flat Rock Lake Shawne is to the north and east of the project.
Few issues were raised related to this particular project, which the supervisors seemed to agree had one of the more comprehensive presentations and plans that had been presented to them. There were also no comments from residents during the public hearing.
But one board member, District 4’s Bill Cox, took issue with the location of the project in an area that is designated as Rural Preservation on the county’s 2019 Comprehensive Plan Future Land Use Map.
Rather than the misnomer of “solar farm,” Cox characterized this project and others like it that the board of supervisors in the past have approved as an industrial-grade electrical generation, electrical transmission, electrical storage facility, which is not mentioned as an appropriate use in the Rural Preservation description in the comprehensive plan.
Cox said his purpose in raising the issue was not to denigrate the North Ridge project but to point out the disconnect between what the board is saying it wants for the future of the county and what it actually has in the comprehensive plan, which is supposed to be a guide for the future of the county.
“This particular project, the components of it, are probably one of the better ones that we have actually seen – I don’t think there is any question about that,” Cox said. “The comprehensive plan is an important thing for the county and an important for me personally. I like the project; I don’t like how it fits with our comprehensive plan.”
While the board didn’t set any definitive steps forward on addressing the issue, discussion prompted by Cox’s points seemed to show there was interest in addressing the role and guidelines of solar projects in Powhatan.
The CUP requested by North Ridge Powhatan Solar and approved by the board deals with a project that will sit on a 315.84-acre property. However, the solar project will be limited to 197 acres within that property and the solar panels will be further limited to a maximum area of 84 acres, said Ken Niemann, president of North Ridge Resources, the applicant for the CUP. Of that, 163 acres will be fenced.
The plan currently calls for about 65,000 solar panels on a single-axis tracking system and includes a provision for a battery energy storage system on 1.5 acres, he said.
The solar project will connect to the existing Dominion Virginia Power distribution system, although it does not yet have a purchaser, Niemann said. However, he pointed out that all project permits and agreements run with the land, so regardless of which company owns the solar farm, it still has to adhere to the conditions.
Niemann said the site was chosen as a possible site for a solar project for a variety of reasons. It was recently timbered and is not prime agricultural land, it contains no listed Virginia cultural resources, and it is already well screened by topography and existing woods so it is not visible from the road or the Lake Shawnee community.
The project will have a 200-foot setback from the property lines and a 250-foot buffer from residential dwellings, Niemann said. There is also a minimum 200-foot riparian buffer along wetlands and streams.
Niemann provided an estimated total cost for the project at $30 to $35 million. During construction, the project will generate about 70-full-time-equivalent jobs for six months, representing $3 million of labor-related income and $9 million of total economic output, he said.
Between roll-back taxes, real estate taxes, and machinery and tools taxes, the project would represent a net increase in tax revenues for Powhatan County of $131,000 in the first year and $2.35 million over the life of the 35-year project, he said.
Upon board approval of the CUP, Niemann said the company will continue its Virginia Department of Environmental Quality permit by rule process. He estimated construction could start in early 2022 and the project be in service by mid-to-late 2022.
The one area of the project where board members did raise concerns was with the decommissioning plan at the end of the project. Cox noted that the plan was prepared by North Ridge, including the decommissioning cost figures.
After a little discussion, the board agreed to approve the project but add the condition that the decommissioning plan has to be prepared by a third party. The decommissioning figures will be updated every five years, and that too must be prepared by a third party, the board decided.
Before this project, the board of supervisors had reviewed seven solar projects in the county dating back to 2015. Of those seven, two have been completed, two have an approved CUP, and one has a site plan approved, according to Andrew Pompei, planning director. A 2018 project was withdrawn at the board of supervisors meeting level and a 2020 project was denied by the board.
After Cox laid out his problem with solar farms in the comprehensive plan, chairwoman Karin Carmack, District 5, raised the issue of the previous solar projects that have been approved, to which Cox simply said, “they shouldn’t have been approved.”
David Williams, who represents District 1, acknowledged Cox’s point and said the board should have paid more attention to the solar project section of the comprehensive plan, but it didn’t.
“That is something we can fix and we can revisit and we should. But again, that is on us,” he said. “I am not on the point tonight where I am going to deny a conditional use permit because we didn’t do maybe what we needed to do maybe to make it clear not only to ourselves but to the public as to what we actually wanted in our comprehensive plan.”
Williams pointed out that he had no complaints from Lake Shawnee residents, he didn’t have concerns about the applicant trying to do a piecemeal project to get around size restrictions, and he appreciated the buffer and runoff mitigation plans already in place.
After a little more discussion, the board approved the project with the new conditions.
Laura McFarland may be reached at Lmcfarland@powhatantoday.com.