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Solar field approved, but tree buffer may complicate next steps

Posted on Saturday, March 11, 2017 at 2:55 pm

A view of the recently completed 250-acre solar facility built by Dominion Energy just east of the town of Louisa.

The company that plans a massive solar panel project southwest of the town of Louisa received the Louisa County Board of Supervisors’ backing on March 6. But that support came with a significant hitch.

Virginia Solar LLC officials looked bewildered after Supervisor Fitzgerald Barnes (Patrick Henry district) made his motion for approval contingent on the company’s providing a 150-foot buffer of evergreen trees to minimize the view of the panels.

“All the people I was hearing from, they didn’t want to see it,” Barnes said, explaining why he wanted the 150 feet.

Matthew Meares, Virginia Solar’s co-founder, said he wasn’t sure what the company’s next steps would be and needs to see in writing the conditions the board imposed.

“We’re awaiting the opportunity to review the language around the buffers to see how it affects the project,” he said.

The solar field will bring in over $200,000 in property tax revenue to the county during the first year in operation, Meares said last week. Over the 35-year life of the project, the total estimated revenue would be $3.25 million. That averages out to $93,000 annually, a reflection of the panels’ depreciating value over time.

Gene Kearns, who lives near the proposed solar site spoke against the project at Monday’s public hearing. He said the tree buffer should be at least 100 feet. Tom Whitlock, another neighbor, spoke in favor of the project. They were the only residents to weigh in on the issue on March 6. At the Louisa County Planning Commission meeting on the project on Feb. 9, a larger number of residents spoke in favor and in opposition.

The amount of land needed to accommodate the tree buffer could be significant. Meares told the board 150 feet of open ground is needed around the solar panels. That’s to avoid shading from trees that could reduce the panels’ energy output.

The solar panels are proposed to cover some 550 acres spread over an area of some 1,000 acres between Waldrop Church Road and Harris Creek Road. If constructed, the project will be one of the largest solar fields to date on the East Coast.

Virginia Solar had suggested a 50-foot buffer of trees, plus additional distance from the panels in the form of open space. That was the agreement worked out by the planning commission before it recommended the project on Feb. 9. The actual distance between the panels and the property line would have been 300 feet.

The property on which Virginia Solar wants to install solar panels is owned by Boyd Cash LLC, of which Harold Purcell is manager, and has been used in recent years as timber land.

Barnes justified the 150-foot distance by referring to the 100-foot tree buffer currently required for new residential subdivisions in areas zoned for agriculture.

The rule was put in place to maintain the appearance of rural character, even as some residential development occurs. It does not have to be used to shield all subdivisions, however, because the county allows developers to use a 400-foot open space buffer as an alternative.

“People buy land based on what they expect to happen in those areas,” Barnes said.

Barnes also said this project could be followed by more solar installations, suggesting the tree buffer should serve as a precedent.

“What I don’t want to happen is that we’re approving solar sites without a plan,” he said.

Barnes said the expanded buffer would help ensure nearby residents don’t have to see the seven-foot-tall chain link fence, topped with barbed wire, that will be erected around the perimeter of the solar project.

Some of the other projects Virginia Solar has developed had as little as a single row of trees as a buffer, although many of those projects were in areas that were less densely populated than the Waldrop Church Road area.

The board’s vote on Monday gives Virginia Solar a conditional use permit, since the county regulates the solar field as a major utility, which is not allowed by right in an agricultural zone.


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