Commission recommends against solar farm proposal

Published 9:19 pm Thursday, November 19, 2020

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A proposed solar farm for the Chuckatuck area did not get a favorable recommendation from the Planning Commission, but City Council will still have a chance to weigh in.

The commission decided unanimously not to recommend a conditional use permit for a three-megawatt solar facility with about 8,190 solar panels that would be connected to the Dominion Energy power grid. It would be built on more than 100 acres about 3.8 miles south of Chuckatuck at 4029 Godwin Blvd. Borrego Solar Systems Inc. submitted the permit application on behalf of property owners Timothy Butler and John Butler Jr.

The property is zoned agricultural, and the 2035 Comprehensive Plan designates the area as part of the Rural Conservation Use District. Previous approved solar farms in the city have been in rural agricultural use districts and not rural conservation use districts.

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Just 70 acres of the property is part of the conditional use permit, and the solar facility would be built on just about 30 acres of the property.

The panels would be ground-mounted in groups of three, one-megawatt arrays using photovoltaic solar modules, with the arrays being a maximum of 10 feet high.

There would also be a seven-foot chain-link fence around the perimeter of the solar arrays, with the proposal for the project noting that there would be a 15-foot wide vegetative buffer. Berms would be an option, but not a requirement — and an existing treeline and wetland to screen them from Godwin Boulevard. The property is wooded along its northern and southwestern border.

Commissioner Mills Staylor asked about the requirements for a vegetative buffer, saying he was concerned about any solar farms proposed along main thoroughfares, citing one off of U.S. Route 460 as “a total eyesore.”

“I’m very concerned that we would in our main entrance ways to the city, (State) Route 10 being one of those and 460 being another, that we’ve allowed (those) there to become an eyesore,” Staylor said. “I know the proponents made some comments about not being able to be seen from the road.”

City Director of Planning and Community Development David Hainley said the vegetation would need to be a combination of trees, shrubs and ground covers.

The staff’s recommendation to deny the permit notes that it conflicts with the city’s unified development ordinance and 2035 Comprehensive Plan because it conflicts with allowed uses in the rural conservation district, does not preserve the buffer between growth areas and the suburban-rural interface, “adversely impacts future development potential and adjacent properties … (and) adversely impacts orderly and predictable development.”

The permit, according to the staff report, conflicts with policies on the timing and availability of public water facilities.

Borrego Solar officials and representatives during a public hearing sought to address the issues raised in the staff report and from the commission. They described what would be installed as more of a farm than a solar plant, and said with required vegetative buffers around them, people would not notice the solar farm from Godwin Boulevard.

Mark Ricketts, with AES Consulting Engineers and a local consultant for Borrego Solar, said the company’s proposal would meet most of the requirements in the 2035 Comprehensive Plan.

“In reading through that, we have met most of those guidelines,” Ricketts said, “as far as how it develops, how it’s screened, how it’s buffered, how it’s installed, the design of it and those sorts of things. And our goal is to be 100% compliant with that.”

Ricketts said the major issue has to do with the location of the proposed solar farm relative to the Comprehensive Plan. He said the solar farm would not be an intense industrial use and would not conflict with any residential development or small retail that would happen around it.

“The project itself doesn’t really conflict or prohibit it,” Ricketts said, “because in the 30 acres, which is 30% of the 100 acres that’s just this parcel, is additional development that the residential that’s referred to in (the staff report) as well as small retail can still occur around it.

Company officials said the solar farm would have a life expectancy of about 30 years.

Commissioner John Rector said he was not inclined to support the solar farm, noting its temporary nature.

“Given the comments from the applicants that these things seem to have a lifespan of their own,” Rector said, “I agree with the city’s position that this is probably a poor place to put something like a solar farm that might be there for a long time.”