prospect power (copy)

Rendering of a proposed energy storage system on the south side of Craney Island Road just east of U.S. 11 outside New Market.

The Rockingham County Board of Supervisors approved a large solar farm near Port Republic last week despite the board chair throwing some shade at the proposal.

Sun Ridge Solar, of Juno Beach, Fla., sought the permit for a large-scale, ground-mounted solar facility on the south side of U.S. 340, just east of Lynnwood Road.

The proposal’s representatives say the 150-acre project is at an ideal location, using land previously disturbed by a quarry, and it would produce 50 megawatts of power, which could generate enough electricity to power 20% of the county’s households.

It would have a lifespan of up to 35 years, not be visible from any sensitive viewpoint and have no impact to agricultural land, representatives said.

The request was tabled during the board’s October meeting, during which supervisors met in a 20-minute closed session just before members were set to vote on a motion to approve the project.

At the October meeting, County Attorney Tom Miller said tabling the item would let Sun Ridge Solar representatives work with county staff to determine the total acreage of the project, and also address a concern raised by board members and the public about cutting 30 acres worth of trees to make way for the panels.

The parcel, in total, is about 563 acres.

On Wednesday, Rockingham zoning administrator Kelly Getz said Sun Ridge Solar added a condition where “the development of the facility shall not cause the removal of more trees than what is necessary to complete the project.”

“I will just say that while this is the ideal location, it is insulting, it is demeaning, and it just seems environmentally unsound to claim that solar panels are better for the environment, in this instance, than hardwood trees,” said board Chair Sallie Wolfe-Garrison, who was the lone vote in dissent.

Project representatives have said they plan to implement a vegetative buffer, which would account for about 10 acres of hardwood trees.

Sun Ridge Solar also proposed that it would make a $30,000 contribution to the county for the purposes of planting or conserving trees elsewhere in the county, which the board declined.

“I’d rather not accept funds for the county to do anything like that,” said County Administrator Stephen King. “If they wanted to do it independently, I wouldn’t discourage anyone from contributing towards plantings on their own. But I wouldn’t want the county to accept funds to do some kind of planting.”

Supervisor Dewey Ritchie said he only voted to approve the project because of its “ideal” location.

“This just seems ideal to me,” he said. “Even though I know that the trees and all that, sometimes we just gotta go with what is the right decision because of the location.”

Construction of any building or structure on the property would begin within two years of either June 1, 2024, or the date the mine reclamation plan is successfully implemented on the site, according to Getz.

Farmland Vs. Solar Panels

It’s yet to be determined if a large-scale solar farm off of U.S. 11 near Mount Crawford is a good idea, at least in the minds of county decision-makers.

Also last week, the Board of Supervisors tabled a request from Total Energies LLC to build a 14-acre solar farm at the Garden Fresh Produce property at 201 Friedens Church Road.

“I have spoken with the applicant. They know my very, very deep concern which was expressed multiple times by various people that rose in opposition to this request,” said Supervisor Bill Kyger, who participated in the meeting via video conferencing. “This is some of the best agricultural cropland in the county, and for 35 years on this board, I’ve been on both sides of a vote in taking good land and making it something else, and protecting good land and keeping it from being made something else.

“However, I’m not there tonight to have an opportunity to speak to each of [the board members] on your feelings,” Kyger continued. “So, I would like the benefit of some time to hear from my colleagues on the board, and so I would move to table this.”

The proposed 14-acre array would be located on a 58-acre parcel zoned for prime agriculture, according to county documents.

Alex Fox, a representative of the proposal, told the board that the array would be part of a community-based solar energy program for Dominion Energy customers, should they choose to subscribe to the credits.

Fox said the array would be “tucked away” and not be visible from “any major thoroughfare roadway.”

Five people were opposed to the proposal, raising concerns with its impact on agriculture.

“I would rather not see it get taken out of farmland,” said Dale Wenger.

Charlottesville land use attorney Lori Schweller, Total Energy’s legal counsel, said the project’s landlord is a farmer, and the project would allow him to generate income to continue farming.

“It would be sort of a placeholder that would keep the land available for farming in the future,” she said. “And that’s not the case for a lot of land uses. If this were to be developed into homes or some other by-right use, of course it would be taken out of agriculture, possibly forever.”

Power Stalling

In other business, the board unanimously tabled a special-use permit request from Prospect Power LLC for an energy storage facility on the south side of Craney Island Road just east of U.S. 11 outside New Market.

Cyrus Tashakkori, president of Prospect Power, told supervisors the storage system would consist of numerous battery containers about 30 feet long, 6 feet wide and 10 feet high.

It would be charged with energy from, and would discharge back to, Virginia’s electric grid, Tashakkori said.

“Prospect would plug right into that substation right there,” he said, referencing Dominion Energy’s Endless Cavern substation adjacent to the proposed facility.

The site is currently zoned for agriculture, leading two county residents to raise questions about the proposal. An unrelated, large-scale solar farm near the property was previously approved by the county.

“This was a farming community,” said Dennis Higgs, who said two of his neighbors shared the same concerns. “...We do not need this in our area.”

Ritchie, whose district the proposal is in, said he would need to do more research before making a decision on the project.

“This is kind of new to us. ... I would move to table this to the next meeting and give us time to digest what we heard tonight,” he said.

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