WOODSTOCK — Shenandoah County’s Planning Commission tabled action on a proposed large-scale solar facility in Edinburg on Thursday night and tasked county staff with developing a way to create more intensive guidelines to follow in making future decisions on such projects.

MSolar Industries, based out of Woodbridge, is proposing a 168-acre solar facility consisting of approximately 100,000 panels on property located at 16503 Old Valley Pike in Edinburg. It is seeking a special-use permit to proceed with the project, which, if constructed, would span multiple parcels just south of the county landfill and east of Interstate 81.

Commissioners, after over an hour’s worth of presentations, public comments and discussion on the proposed project, voted 6-1 to table any recommendation to the Board of Supervisors toward the end of a busy, 3½-hour meeting that included a joint public hearing with supervisors on four special-use permit requests.

Commissioner Mark Dotson (District 1) made the motion to table and asked that county staff develop a means to explore in more depth the complexities of large-scale solar facilities and their potential impacts on Shenandoah County. Dotson stated that neighboring Rockingham County recently formed a “community-based” committee to study such impacts and wanted Shenandoah County to look at doing something similar.

“These are gonna be long-term issues, 30, 50-plus years,” Dotson said. “My recommendation is we have a solid foundation that we build on, that we use to consider every one of these applications.”

Todd Steiner (District 4) was the only commissioner to vote against Dotson’s motion.

Thursday’s public hearing was the first time commissioners have deliberated on a large-scale solar facility since the Shenandoah County ordinance on such facilities -- which was originally passed in January 2020 -- was amended in January of this year to include more details and guidelines.

MSolar’s proposal dwarfs the last large-scale solar facility that received Board of Supervisors approval in October 2020, which involved construction of a solar farm on 32 acres of land in the area of Walker and Georgetown roads in Mount Jackson.

Michael O’Connor, founder of MSolar, told commissioners and supervisors on Thursday night that the Edinburg facility, if constructed, would generate “54 megawatts of continuous power” and would have a lifespan of 50-plus years. The facility would be tied into the Edinburg substation, O’Connor said, and the energy generated would be put directly into the power grid.

O’Connor said that local production of that much energy could mean county residents would see a “small change” on the price of their electric bills, adding that there would be potential down the road to sell clean energy directly to consumers.

He also noted that the site, if completed, would be worth “about $50 million” and could generate “about $340,000 to $360,000” annually just in real-estate taxes alone to the county tax rolls.

The proposed Edinburg solar farm would also create 25 to 30 full-time jobs, O’Connor claimed. He added that his company recently began renting a 50,000-square-foot building in Mount Jackson that, at this time next year, will house the “fifth-largest solar panel manufacturing company in the country,” which he noted would create another 50 to 70 new jobs.

“Virginia mandated last year that 40% of all the energy in the state of Virginia by 2040 has to be renewable energy,” O’Connor stated during his presentation. “This is gonna help Shenandoah County meet their compliance to do that.”

O’Connor said the proposed site in Edinburg “sits perfectly for what our intended use is” and said a “pretty intensive” viewshed study was performed on various points along I-81. He said a 20-foot-high berm would be constructed and trees planted to eliminate glare on the interstate, and that the panels would not be visible to southbound drivers on I-81 and only visible to northbound tractor-trailers for a seven-second period.

O’Connor acknowledged that the panels could potentially be visible to a group of houses to the northeast of the proposed site, and most of the eight neighboring property owners who spoke during Thursday’s public hearing expressed concern about being able to see the facility from their homes.

One of the county staff recommendations included in the special-use permit application was to raise the height of the solar panels such that livestock would be able to graze underneath them, a means to continue to allow agricultural use on property that is zoned as such. That would require the panels to be about 9 feet off the ground, O’Connor said, about 3 feet higher than standard panels.

Steiner stated just before the Planning Commission’s vote that he felt some concerns with the viewshed could be alleviated by removing the height condition. O’Connor noted during his presentation that the land in question was previously used for crops and hasn’t recently housed livestock.

“It seems like you’re trying to save livestock but from what I’m hearing, the neighbors aren’t too happy about having to look at this,” Steiner said. “It seems to me the lower we can get, the better it is for the welfare of the residents around it.”

Other concerns raised by residents on Thursday included the impact such a facility could have on property values and local wildlife; whether the project falls in line with the county’s Comprehensive Plan, which speaks to the importance of maintaining agriculture; and the use of Taylortown Road and Rebel Lane as the construction entrance for the project.

One nearby property owner claimed he knew nothing of the proposed project until the county contacted him earlier this week to notify him of Thursday’s public hearing and stated that “the lack of communication (from the applicant) on something this big concerns me.”

Jeff Cook, another neighbor, opened his remarks by pointing out a disclosure of ownership/interest that was included in the agenda packet for Thursday’s meeting. The document is signed by Randall Kennedy Sr. -- the owner of the property on which MSolar is proposing to build its facility -- and states that members of the Shenandoah County Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors “do not have interest in the aforesaid property.” Cook waved his copy of the agenda packet during his comments and stated, “This thing, to me, is trash.”

Supervisor Brad Pollack — who represents District 3, in which the land in question is located — stated at the start of Thursday’s public hearing that he was disqualifying himself from a vote or any other action pertaining to the proposed solar facility, citing a “personal interest” in the special-use permit request. Pollack said after the meeting that he was associated with MSolar through his job as an attorney.

To the commissioners and supervisors in attendance on Thursday night, Cook also said: “When you vote on this, this is what I want each one of you to think about: Would you want this beside your house?”

Planning Commission Chairman Gary Lantz and fellow commissioners Mark Dotson, Tommy Miller, Steiner, Debbie Keller (virtual) and Eunice Terndrup attended Thursday’s meeting, as did Supervisor Dennis Morris (the Board of Supervisors’ representative on the Planning Commission) and fellow supervisors Josh Stephens, Dennis Baker (chairman), Pollack and Tim Taylor. District 4 Supervisor Karl Roulston was absent.

Contact Brad Fauber at bfauber@nvdaily.com

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