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Recommendation on proposed Whaleyville solar farm tabled

The Planning Commission tabled a recommendation on a conditional use permit for a proposed Whaleyville solar farm after nearby residents expressed myriad concerns that it would be disruptive to the area.

The proposed three-megawatt, unmanned solar farm would be located on 108 acres of property owned by Adam Rountree and Brandon Simpson, but Chaberton Solar Whitney, which has applied for the conditional use permit for the solar farm, plans to locate it on the 24 acres in the southeast quadrant of the intersection between Great Fork Road and Lucy Cross Road. 

There would be two separate solar facilities on the site, a one-megawatt facility and a two-megawatt facility; the staff report for the project states that the two would appear to operate as one facility. The two facilities would take up 15 of the 24 acres. 

As part of the project, there would be ground-mounted solar arrays with a maximum of 10 feet in height, a seven-foot chain link fence would be built, and there would also be a 50-foot wide vegetative buffer adjacent to properties to the west, a 25-foot vegetative buffer landscape buffer to the north at Lucy Cross Road and a 50-foot setback to any nearby properties. 

Existing buffers at the eastern and southern boundaries would be preserved.  

Martin Speroni, an attorney with Saunders & Ojeda in Suffolk representing the project applicants, said during an April 20 public hearing the solar farm would not be visible from any nearby roads or residences. He also said the site would not have a central inverter but rather 24 string inverters throughout the site, each sounding like a household refrigerator. He said the solar farm “should not be heard” outside of the chain-link fence.

Speroni said the site would also have a detailed decommissioning plan when the site reaches the end of its useful life.  While there was a community meeting for the proposed project, no one showed up, but residents at the commission’s public hearing said they had little notice of it. 

According to a March 11 letter from Century Engineering, two of the three existing forested wetland area and stream would remain undisturbed. However, one 0.19-acre wetland area within the solar array would require wetland forest clearing of about 8.1 acres. 

Jennifer Anderson, a site engineer with Century Engineering, said the landscape buffering would include shrubs, shade trees, ornamental trees and evergreens. She said that would allow for the vegetation to remain during the winter months. 

After the site is built, Anderson said there would be “minimal” traffic going to the site — about one trip per month for site maintenance. 

Ruth Lizon, who lives near the proposed solar farm, said it would be near her backyard and that of her neighbors. She said she is concerned that the buffer would not be sufficient, and the noise coming from it, reflections from the panels, the disruption to wildlife and the decrease in property values would harm her and the environment. 

“This is just too close to homes,” Lizon said. “Normally when you see solar farms, they’re out in these farmlands where there’s no other homes around. That’s not the case here. Fifty feet is not very far.”

Jessica Yenny, who also lives near the proposed solar farm, was one of nine people speaking out against the project during a public hearing. She said she only got word of the meeting two days before it. She also expressed concerns about the sound that would come from the project, as well as the landscaping that she believes would be lacking from it and its proximity to her yard.

“I don’t want my children playing 50 feet from a solar farm, even if there is a seven-foot-high chain link fence,” Yenny said. “It’s dangerous.”

Both Lizon and Yenny said they never would have bought their houses there if they knew a solar farm would be put in. 

Tim Daniel, at the public hearing on behalf of Great Fork Baptist Church, noted the church’s location with it facing both Great Fork and Lucy Cross roads and said that if the project is approved, that Lucy Cross Road near the church should be paved. The road is currently a dirt and gravel road, which Daniel said whirls up dirt anytime someone drives on it. 

Daniel also cited the noise that would come from the project and played a recording of noise from a solar farm on U.S. Route 460 taken from an inverter that he said was more than 50 feet away from him.

Speroni said residents’ concerns were valid, but said there’s just as much noise from farming as from a solar farm. 

“Are we going to have some solar panels, or are we going to have agriculture?” Speroni queried. “Agriculture brings dust, noise and chemicals. If we were to look at that, we would have a bunch of comments about the dust, noise and chemicals. We’re looking at competing uses for this land. We believe that this applicant, with the measures they have taken, is going to be a particularly good neighbor, certainly a better neighbor in terms of chemicals, in terms of dust and machinery noise that (would come from) a farm.”

He said there would be another community meeting to get feedback on the project, and allow people to attend the meeting remotely via Zoom or another method. 

Anderson said there would be no impact on threatened or endangered wildlife, citing a determination letter from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. She said stormwater management requirements would be provided on-site. She also said the vegetative buffer would be substantial enough to reduce noise and make the site less visible to nearby residents and passers-by. 

Michael Doniger, vice president of Chaberton Solar Whitney, said he shared residents’ concerns. On the noise, he said the string inverters would be smaller than a home air conditioning unit and would be spread throughout the project. The closest solar panel to a home would be about 150 feet away, or half a football field, he said.

Construction on the solar farm would take about three months, potentially less than that, Doniger said. The project is designed to comply with Virginia’s Clean Economy Act, signed into law last year. It requires the state to get to 100% renewable energy use by 2050. 

He said the overhead line connecting the project to Dominion Power is currently shown going along the northern and eastern boundaries of the Great Fork Baptist Church cemetery and they are in discussions with its routing. It would have to be above-ground to make the tie-in to the grid, but can be underground up to that point.

Commissioner John Rector asked if the sound could be muffled from the string inverters. Doniger said he has not seen other solar farms do that, but it was something they could explore. The inverters are connected 24 hours per day, but would not be running at night or when the sun is not shining. 

Doniger also said the water table was a concern about possibly using the other 84 acres north of Lucy Cross Road further away from nearby residents. 

The commission ultimately voted unanimously to table a recommendation for 30 days to allow for residents to meet with those involved with the proposed solar farm.