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Solar SUP advances with 3-2 vote: Planning commission seeks solar project guidelines

Solar SUP advances with 3-2 vote: Planning commission seeks solar project guidelines

The Redfish Solar special use permit application has been on seven of the last eight meeting agendas for the Orange County Planning Commission.

After four months of meetings and hours of deliberation and discussion, the planning commission voted 3-2 to recommend approval of the proposed small-scale solar project on Catharpin Road to the board of supervisors.

In addition to recommending approval of the project, commission members also expressed an interest in establishing more formal guidelines for future solar project applications.

Redfish Solar Partners, a Charlottesville-based company, has applied for a special use permit to construct a renewable energy facility on 96.6 acres of agriculturally zoned land in Locust Grove.

The land is owned by Catherine and Michael Mayo Jr. and is less than three miles from the Paytes community just over the Orange-Spotsylvania County lines.

The project, submitted last fall, is being pursued in partnership with Rappahannock Electric Cooperative (REC) and Old Dominion Electric Cooperative (ODEC).

The SUP application has been a part of the commission’s agenda since the first public hearing opened in February, and the commission had a 100-day window to make a recommendation to the board.

Solar generation facilities in Orange County are permitted only through special use permits.

The Redfish application suggests the proposed project would “diversify the region’s electricity generation mix, reducing a reliance on natural gas and other fuels subject to high price volatility.”

Additionally, the application notes the proposed project would deliver more efficient power from a “centralized plant in communities where the electricity is consumed, rather than others located tens or hundreds of miles away,” reducing the need for long-term transmission system upgrades.

REC’s Paytes substation, which feeds the local electrical distribution system, is located approximately 1.5 miles southwest of the project site and, if the project is approved, would provide the infrastructure necessary to connect the solar facility to the distribution grid.

At last Thursday’s meeting, ODEC Senior Power Supply Manager James Wright said the benefit the project is, “It’s a more cost-effective way for co-ops to do clean energy than other alternatives. It replaces generation from coal, natural gas or something else and reduces overall emissions, which has benefits and members save money.”

If ultimately approved for operation, the applicants suggest the project will generate “about 10,290 megawatt-hours of clean renewable electricity each year, which is equivalent to 840 homes’ energy use for one year, 1,572 passenger vehicles driven for one year, and 7,276 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions avoided.”

If approved and constructed, the project is expected to have a 25- to 35-year life span and the application calls for it to be deenergized, disconnected, dismantled and removed at the end of its viability.

The applicants expect an estimated capital investment of approximately $6.5 million with an additional $1.9 million in associated economic impacts. It would take approximately six to nine months to complete construction.

Before the commission again discussed the application, it heard from two former planning commission members and current Orange County Farm Bureau representatives—Bill Speiden and Andy Hutchison.

Last month, the Farm Bureau recommended the county adopt a moratorium on solar projects until it could develop guidelines for future projects. The commission narrowly approved that recommendation and submitted it to the board of supervisors, which has not yet considered the request.

Speiden said he wanted farmers to have the opportunity to use agricultural land for solar panels, but also for the county to be protected.

“I want it open to our farmers to have solar panels properly sited and the county properly protected,” he said. “This is an opportunity for some farmers to make $1,200-$1,400 an acre per year in rent. It beats the hell out of raising corn or milking cows. Properly orchestrated, the county can make money on this in taxes. You can put houses on every two acres but for every $1 they pay in, it costs the county $1.25. For a farmer, every dollar they pay in, costs the county $.70. You’re a whole lot better off with solar panels properly sited and properly screened.”

Hutchison spoke on the need for a consistent guideline for future projects.

“I would like to see it fair to the citizens as well as the solar companies,” he said suggesting the county’s approach to solar projects was inconsistent. “With a solar SUP, I don’t know how a company, a solar company, could come into the county and know what was expected,” he said. “The county needs some guidelines, ordinance or both. Farm Bureau wants to be part of the solution for its producer-members and the county and citizens.”

In her presentation to the commission, planning services manager Sandra Thornton said following concerns about screening and buffering raised at the commission’s May 6 meeting, staff conducted a site visit to review the subject parcel.

In the interim, planning staff and the applicants discussed existing conditions with respect to buffering to provide adequate screening of the project from Catharpin Road and adjacent properties. The properties to the north and west of the subject parcel are owned by the Mayos as well.

Thornton said the applicants have proposed a new buffering plan which includes extension of the vegetative buffer adjacent to Catharpin Road to the west as well as supplemental planting and revegetation.

Except for other buffer requirements, a minimum 35-foot buffer will be observed along all project boundaries, she said.

District 2 commission member George Yancey cited the commission’s 2017 decision on a large-scale solar operation not far from the subject property that required a minimum 50-foot buffer and a 100-foot buffer from Route 20.

“I don’t understand why we’re bowing to this applicant. That wasn’t required in the comp plan, but it was prudent action taken by this commission and approved by the board of supervisors,” Yancey said. “I remind you of that going down the road because there are more of these coming. This is coming and we better be prepared. I’m disappointed in a lot of ways, but I understand farmers are financially strapped with pandemic and the business itself, but I don’t think this is revenue-neutral or revenue-positive for Orange County and its citizens.”

“The big difference in the buffer is the landowner on two sides with 35-foot buffer is the same landowner. It’s not a different landowner,” said District 1 commission member Jason Capelle, who was on the 2017 commission with Yancey, with chair Donald Brooks and District 5 representative Jim Hutchison. “In that instance, we were screening the solar farm from different property owners. On the sides with different property owners, there’s way more buffering. On the road, the setbacks on Route 20 and Catharpin Road are different. There’s a huge difference between the two. I don’t think we’re doing anything different. We’re taking into consideration differences between this site and that site and applying sound logic. I think it’s adequately screened.”

“Who knows what Catharpin Road looks like 20 years from now?” Jim Hutchison offered. “I have a concern over buffering and the setback. This isn’t just for today but affects tomorrow.

“We need standards—not only for the commissioners and the board of supervisors, but for the applicants so they know what needs to be done and the citizens can know and understand,” he added.

“We’ve got to have a template for things like this,” Brooks said. “We need to have something in place. I’m not persuaded it has to be an ordinance. I’m persuaded it should be an SUP with a checklist. If you make it by-right, you can get sprawl. If you leave it as an SUP, you still control it. I don’t like everything in this. But who can I trust if I can’t trust the staff? We need to make adherence to this moratorium or we’ll be in a world of trouble here.”

Brooks, Hutchison and Yancey all shared that they had been contacted recently about prospective solar generation facilities within the county.

“We’ve beat this one around a long time,” Brooks noted. “It’s time for us to make a decision.”

Capelle made a motion to recommend approval of the SUP with the amended conditions as presented. After an extended absence of a second, Brooks offered a second and called for the vote. The motion passed 3-2 with Yancey and Hutchison dissenting.

The SUP heads to the board of supervisors which will conduct an additional public hearing on the matter and make the ultimate determination.

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