Split decision on future solar projects

The view from Tisdale Road of a cornfield where a large solar project is proposed. The Louisa County Board of Supervisors will discuss whether to issue a conditional use permit at the Sept. 8 meeting.

Frustrated with reports of flooding caused by a solar field under construction, the Louisa County Planning Commission recommended that the developer not be allowed to build more solar on a nearby property.

But the commission’s 3-2 vote to deny Belcher Solar a conditional use permit was also a vote to grant it. That’s because the solar company applied for a permit to install solar panels on 705 acres on two separate parcels, one on Tisdale Road and the other on Harris Creek Road. The commission’s vote was against solar in the first location, and for it in the latter. 

Commissioners Cy Weaver and Gordon Brooks (Jackson and Mountain Road districts) cast opposing votes. Commissioner John Disosway (Mineral District) abstained, citing his affiliation with Dominion Energy, which owns a nearby solar project. Commissioner Holly Reynolds (Green Springs District) was absent.

While a number of people who live on Tisdale Road asked the commission to turn down the proposal, citing what they said would be a poor visual buffer from their homes, the commission was more focused at its Aug. 13 meeting on flooding caused by another solar project the county approved three years ago.

Heavy rains, combined with the failure of an erosion control device intended to hold back sediment on the construction site, caused some recent downstream flooding in the Old Bickley Road area, according to a Dominion Energy engineer who manages the project. Dominion purchased the solar project after the county approved it from Belcher Solar, the developer.

Ellis Quarles, the planning commissioner for Patrick Henry District, which includes the affected area, presented photographs of flooding on a neighbor’s farm that he said was caused by runoff from solar construction into Bickley Creek. He accused a Dominion Energy representative of playing down the damage to the farmer’s field.

“[The farmer] has been there a number of years and never seen it this muddy,” Quarles said.

Given the trouble he has heard about with the current project, Quarles said he didn’t want to give Belcher Solar permission to build on more land in the same neighborhood. 

But Jeff Ferrel, assistant county administrator, pointed out that Lee Downing, Belcher Solar’s agent, doesn’t necessarily have any influence on the construction site, since his company no longer owns that project. But Ferrel said Downing still made an effort to reach out to residents and Dominion Energy to address the flooding and other citizen complaints.

Tisdale Road residents and some neighbors on Waldrop Church Road also complained of trucks involved with solar construction traveling unsafely. One resident held up a large rock she found in her yard near the road that she said must have fallen out of a truck. 

Downing said the Louisa County Sheriff’s Office hasn’t received many complaints about truck problems in the area, and said unrelated trucks could be the source. He said he would ask the Virginia Department of Transportation to impose a temporary reduction in the 55-mile-per-hour speed limit while construction continues.

The planning commission voted 5-1 to recommend approval of a new county ordinance that would require a minimum 150-foot vegetated buffer to shield large solar projects from the public’s view. The ordinance also institutes limited regulations for small solar installations, including ground-mounted solar panels in people’s yards. 

The board of supervisors will hold a public hearing on the Belcher Solar application on Sept. 8.

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