The Shenandoah County Planning Commission gave its stamp of approval for a proposed large-scale solar facility in Mount Jackson despite concerns raised by neighbors during a joint public hearing with the county’s Board of Supervisors on Thursday night.

Commissioners voted unanimously (one member was absent) to recommend to supervisors the approval of a special-use permit filed by Randolf Solar Partners LLC, which plans to construct a solar energy facility on a 32-acre portion of property located at 332 Walker Road and 595 Georgetown Road. In a related action, commissioners approved the withdrawal of those 32 acres – which lie within a 164-acre property owned by Fred Garber – from the Mount Jackson Agricultural and Forestal District.

The proposed project still needs final approval from the Board of Supervisors, which is scheduled to meet again on Oct. 13.

Chris Gordon, a project developer with EDF Renewables Distributed Solutions, presented details of the proposed project during Thursday’s public hearing. Gordon described Randolf Solar as a “wholly owned entity” of EDF Renewables, which is working in partnership with Shenandoah Valley Electric Cooperative and Old Dominion Electric Cooperative to develop similar locally sited distributed solar projects to provide power to ODEC’s member cooperatives.

The proposed facility, which would be located adjacent to an existing SVEC substation, would have a maximum generation capacity of 3.19 megawatts AC and would connect directly to SVEC’s local distribution system, Gordon said. He added that the project would be the first solar facility “dedicated solely to the SVEC local electric distribution system” and that all of the power generated would go directly to Shenandoah County customers, who would pay a fixed price for the electricity throughout the facility’s 25-year contract.

Information made available on Shenandoah County’s website states that the facility would generate 6,989 megawatt-hours of clean, renewable energy annually, the equivalent to the energy usage of 570 homes. Gordon noted that the facility has a projected lifespan of 25 to 35 years and that EDF Renewables, through its agreement with Garber, would be contractually obligated to decommission and remove the facility when it’s deemed no longer usable.

Gordon said the solar facility would be a “passive use” of the land that produces no emissions, smoke, debris or dust, and it would allow Garber to continue farming the surrounding land as usual. The site, once up and running, would have a low profile and could be manned remotely and would only require in-person visits for routine maintenance, mowing during the summer months and repairs, Gordon said.

He noted that because of the project’s size, EDF Renewables was able to identify a portion of Garber’s property that is primarily open field and avoid wetlands, trees and neighboring structures. The firm also conducted a required viewshed impact study to determine whether screening is needed to address visual hazards.

Gordon presented a timeline for the facility that includes a six-to-nine month construction window and an anticipated up-and-running date for the second or third quarter of 2021.

Four residents of Georgetown Road spoke or sent letters that were read during Thursday’s public hearing and expressed concerns – the same ones, in most instances –  about the proposed project. One primary worry from neighbors was a perceived safety hazard if large vehicles are required during the construction process to use Georgetown Road, off which would run the access road to the facility.

One neighbor, Steve Stein, described Georgetown Road as only slightly wider than a single-lane road with no dividing line and no shoulders and noted a turn near the proposed site that is “about” 90 degrees. He said it’s a “harrowing” experience when encountering large trucks on that road, as vehicles are often forced to pull off the road into the grass on either side and asked the Board of Supervisors to reconsider running the access road off Walker Road or South Middle Road.

Gordon noted that EDF Renewables preferred having the access road to the site off Walker Road but that an engineer with the Virginia Department of Transportation, upon a visit to the site, concluded that Georgetown Road was the only safe option, a decision Gordon said was “mostly based on stopping distance sightlines.” The Planning Commission’s vote of recommendation to supervisors included a condition that signage be posted along Georgetown Road during the construction process.

Other concerns raised by neighbors included the noise level both during and after construction, visual screening of the facility and impacts to the visual landscape, threats to wildlife and the environment, negative effects on the area’s rural atmosphere and fear that the facility would be further expanded in the future.

Gordon addressed many of those concerns, noting that “major deliveries” of large pieces of equipment would only take place during one or two months of the construction window and that while there is a “slight hum” produced by solar facilities during operation, the noise level isn’t expected to exceed 42 decibels – less than a household refrigerator, he said – at the property line. (County code requires that the noise level generated by such facilities be no higher than 65 decibels at the property line and can’t exceed 50 at the nearest dwelling, County Planner Tyler Hinkle noted.)

Gordon added that EDF Renewables does “make every effort” to maintain perimeter vegetation for screening purposes, and he agreed to a condition that would prevent any unnecessary removal of trees during the construction process.

Garber, who spoke during the meeting, said concerns about the project being the start of a larger facility are “probably unfounded,” noting that because of rocks on the property, there is little extra acreage readily available for any such expansion.

Garber also defended his decision to have a solar facility on his property, stating that his family has long farmed land in the county and that while the general understanding of what constitutes “appropriate” use of farmland has changed as time has progressed, “one thing that has not changed is each generation has been imbued with the concept that we must always seek the highest and best use of whatever we have been given stewardship over.”

Commissioners Gary Lantz (chairman), Josh Stephens, Kathleen Curtis, Todd Steiner, Debbie Keller and Dennis Morris, the supervisors' representative on the Planning Commission, attended Thursday's meeting. Eunice Terndrup was not present.

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