MOUNT JACKSON — For the second month in a row the Mount Jackson Planning Commission tabled a vote on the OFW Solar Farm expansion at Monday’s meeting.
The OFW solar farm project is on land off Turkey Knob Road owned by Robert Whitehurst and his sister, Eleanor. Three phases of the project totaling 526.9 acres were previously approved. The fourth phase would bring the project to 655.5 acres.
The Arlington-based Energix company owns the property and is developing and financing the solar farm.
Last month, a public hearing was held for a Substantial Accord Determination — which ensures proposed public utility facilities align with the town’s comprehensive plan — and a Special Use Permit. After several public comments opposing the expansion, the Planning Commission and Mount Jackson Town Council tabled their votes for a month.
On Monday, Commissioner Dennis Andrick’s motion to approve the Substantial Accord Determination was voted down 4-1, with Andrick being the lone supporting vote. That was followed by motions to table voting on the Substantial Accord Determination and the Special Use permit until the commission’s Feb. 7 meeting.
Commissioner Evelyn Burner said she wanted to hear back from Town Manager Neil Showalter, who was unable to attend Monday’s meeting.
“I don’t know what answers Neil (Showalter) has to the questions that I already asked him,” Burner said. “So, I want to check with Neil to see what he knows on the questions that have been brought to him, brought to me, everybody else. ...So that he’s aware of everything and he can get with (Energix) to see what’s going on.”
“I want to make 100 percent sure that we get this right,” Commissioner Anita Miller said.
The commission agreed to send any more questions they have about the expansion to Showalter, who can relay them to relay to Energix and Robert Whitehurst.
“I completely understand (wanting to make sure it’s right),” Robert Whitehurst said. “It’s just we haven’t had a lot of questions being asked before the meeting, that’s why we didn’t know that anything was wrong.”
Darla Odom, consultant with Bridgewater-based The Berkely Group, gave a presentation during which she noted that one issue brought up was the planting of trees. She said that Phase 1 is not yet complete and that they will plant trees before the site is completed.
Odom said the trees, which typically grow 2 feet annually, will be 4-to-5 feet initially.
Energix is seeking seven exceptions with the Special Use Permit. For example, the ordinance requires that such facilities do not exceed 400 acres compared to the requested 655.5 acres.
Additionally, the ordinance requires a 200-foot setback while Energix is requesting a 50-foot setback. Energix is also requesting a 40-foot buffer at property lines compared to the ordinance’s required 100-foot buffer.
Odom said what they are asking for is similar to when the first three phases were approved in 2018, but the ordinance changed in June 2020.
As part of the exception for screening and landscaping, Energix plans to plant trees along all of their property lines except where the topography along I-81 blocks the view of the facility. They are also proposing to plant seedlings 18 months before construction begins, which they did not do during Phase 1.
Odom said they also have agreed to plant trees along the railroad right of way, if and when the proposed Rails to Trails project occurs.
Energix is also seeking to extend the sloping for the project to 15% instead of the 10% required in the ordinance. The company also seeks to have their setbacks serve as the wildlife corridor. Additionally, the company wants an exception for time in which they can begin construction. The ordinance requires construction to begin within two years of approval, instead of the requested five years.
Odom said the staff recommended approval of the Substantial Accord Determination and the Special Use Permit.
Planning Commission members Andrick, Burner, Jim Hines, Miller and Chairman Larry Ambrose and Mount Jackson Mayor Donnie Pifer attended the meeting in-person.