MOUNT JACKSON — Planning Commission members approved a proposed 320-acre solar farm expansion in a 5-1 vote on Monday evening.
Before the regular commission meeting, Cypress Creek Renewables presented its plan for expanding the 160-acre solar farm an additional 320 acres. Cypress Creek took over the project on the Whitehurst property off Turkey Knob Road from Virginia Solar in May.
Matthew Gilliland and Parker Sloan represented Cypress Creek, giving an overview of the company, the Mount Jackson project and addressing common concerns communities have about solar farm projects.
“One of the things I really like about this location is the town, as I understand it, has been considering industrial development,” Gilliland said. “But at the same time, there’s a need to balance the character, low impact, peaceful nature of the community. And I think these projects go a lot of the way there.”
Gilliland said Cypress Creek expects to break ground in the town this year and have Mount Jackson II and III follow soon after — each roughly a year apart.
Many residents, commissioners and council members expressed concern over the long-term economic benefits of the project. The question of what kind of cash flow the farm would bring to Mount Jackson was asked last month at the initial proposal for expansion and again during Monday’s meeting.
Gilliland explained the long-term benefit would come from property tax revenue.
“The value of the property, once it is re-assessed by the county, would increase,” Gilliland said. “It depends on the reassessment, but we have seen sites that go from agriculture to solar and the assessed value doubles or triples.”
Short-term benefits for Mount Jackson include $16,000 in rollback taxes for taking the land out of agricultural use and almost $49 million in spending during construction — including construction costs along with food and lodging for construction workers.
Another long-term goal for communities investing in solar power is a lower electricity bill. All of the power generated on the farm will go onto the local grid. Generally, power companies such as Dominion Energy pay the farm developers a flat rate for the power.
Gilliland said talks are underway with a buyer for the energy produced by Mount Jackson I but he couldn’t disclose the buyer’s identity. He said that projects won’t break ground until a long-term buyer is secured.
Reduced rates for consumers are part of the long game for solar farm investment. But commissioners such as Evelyn Burner are optimistic.
“It’s clean, it gives us energy here and hopefully at a cheaper rate,” she said after the meeting.
Another commissioner, Jim Hines, is less optimistic. He cast the lone dissenting vote to approve the expansion. Hines isn’t against the project in principle, but he said he would like to see how one farm performs before granting a permit to expand.
“I was simply saying, ‘show us what it looks like. Then the community will know.’” Hines said. “Their dates say the next one is a year or two down the road. So what they’re doing is piggybacking a little bit of the time and pushing it up.”
Hines said he was also curious about how much the farm will make for the town.
“Most of the projects [Cypress Creek presented] are in counties,” he said. “So the whole county gets to profit. In this case, it’s just a little town.”
Burner is more confident. She said the few short-term construction jobs and the handful of long-term jobs are better than nothing. She also said she thinks the farm will draw more businesses to the area.
“The local buildings that build into [the farm], they can go ahead and get energy directly from them,” she said. “It’s another thing to help bring in businesses.”
Cypress Creek won over commissioners in a way that other developers have failed to do, in part due to the reputation it has built in its short history. One Planning C ommission member, Whitney Miller, said she had called other towns that have worked with Cypress Creek and heard only good reports.
Page County planning commissioners rejected a similar project in Luray last week. Commissioners said the farm did not fit into the county’s comprehensive plan. Virginia-based companies Dogwood Solar and Cape Solar filed for the permits in Page County.
In other business, commissioners also approved a special use permit request from Todd Holtzman to convert the old Triplett High School cafeteria into four apartment units. The vote passed 5-0 with Dennis Andrick abstaining.
Todd Gordon and Catherine Redfearn, from the Berkeley group, told commissioners they are in the process of updating the town’s zoning ordinance to make sure it meets state code. Some of their goals are to make the zoning ordinance easier to understand and more accessible for commissioners and community members.
The Town Council will vote on the permits during its Oct. 9 meeting.
All of the Planning Commission members were present for Monday’s meeting. All of the Town Council members were present for the joint public hearing.