Council OKs permit for solar facility

Published 6:39 pm Friday, March 17, 2023

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A Wilroy Road solar energy facility got the green light from City Council Wednesday night with approval of a conditional use permit.

During the March 15 meeting, council received public comments on the proposed facility after the city’s Planning Commission gave its 7-0 approval at a Feb. 2 meeting.

“This may look a little familiar. Back in August of 2021, a very similar application of the exact same site was denied by City Council,” Director of Planning and Commissions Kevin Wyne said. “This is a conditional use permit to establish a solar energy facility on a portion of property.”

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Wyne said the applicant is now requesting approval for a three-megawatt solar energy facility on the parcel, on the west side of Wilroy Road about 900 feet south of Nansemond Parkway, the northern portion of the central growth area. 

“The proposed facility consists of a single field of ground mounted solar rays designed to track with the sunlight throughout the day to maximize incoming solar energy,” he explained.

Community Power Group founder Michael Borkowski, who spoke in favor of the permit, clarified that the presentation had two slides with one showing the project’s prior stages and another showing the project based on the feedback from the community and public information sessions. 

“I did want to clarify what is up there right now is the final presentation, which is what Rachel (Boots) will be speaking about momentarily,” Borkowski said. “The other thing I wanted to add is that there is a shared solar program here in Virginia that allows the solar to get sold back to the community.”

Borkowski said they will be submitting the project for the shared program, which will allow them to dedicate 30% of the project to the low income community with discounted power. 

“That is kind of an added feature that, based on the timing, it looks like we might be able to get that submission in,” he explained.

Community Power Group engineer Rachel Boots discussed the project changes.


“The project was relocated to be set back more than 300 feet from future Wilroy Road,” she said. “There will be a double staggered row of vegetated buffer next to the project, but we will also be installing street trees on the future Wilroy Road, which was requested and coordinated with the planning staff.” 

Boots they plan to install a fire hydrant adjacent to the proposed site entrance and that will bring the Wilroy Road corridor up to standard, as it is currently not within spacing requirements. The project use game fence that is more aesthetically pleasing than the chain link fence.

Suffolk citizen Tom Rein spoke in favor of the project.

“I know there’s a lot of questions regarding solar farms in Suffolk. I think the location of this project gives us an opportunity to really view what can be done and the challenges of them,” Rein said. “There’s no residential buildings that I know of, there might be one actually in this area, so the impact of this I think is minimized, which is great.”

He said he believes having the developer state that they understand the issue with the traffic and are going to hold themselves accountable is great, adding that he asks council to do the same thing.

Speaking in opposition to the conditional use permit was Jacquline Brooks, who stated her reservations of the project due to the schools in the area and the “horrendous” traffic issues.

“I don’t know how you can get assurances from this company that this will not be a problem,” Brooks said. “We already have problems because people are not obeying, you can’t turn right and get off of Wilroy on Nansemond Parkway when a train’s there. People will block the traffic there. How are you and when are you going to address that issue?”

Councilman Timothy Johnson discussed his support of the project, despite not currently advocating for solar-based technology.

“In this case, I will have to be perfectly honest, they came to us before, they took everything back that we’ve told them and they’ve addressed it,” Johnson said. “I’m of the opinion that we as a city could use this solar facility as well, as the gentleman said earlier, to teach us what solar is all about and to teach us where we need to go with solar here in Suffolk.”

Councilmember Shelley Butler-Barlow who also has reservations to solar facilities but shared her reasons for suppoting the facility.

“I think that we have a lot of good ideas that come about in our society that represent positive changes that can be of benefit to all of us. But I think at times, we have unintended consequences and negative results of those good ideas,” Butler-Barlow said. “I think we’re in a situation right now where the federal government and the state government is mandating a switch to green energy programs and I applaud that effort and I think that we as a society need to make movements in those directions.”

She went on to say she believes one of the unintended consequences is the pressure in changing agricultural land use.

“This is no surprise to anybody in this room that I’m going to tell you that we all eat, and we all wear clothes and that’s really important and that’s what your farmers provide for you,” Butler-Barlow said. “All that being said, I think this project is a really well thought out project. I agree with Council Member Johnson that you all came to us a year ago, presented us with a plan, we voted against it. You’ve come back, you’ve done all the necessary changes that we’ve asked for.”

She said she believes the have addressed the issues and hopes the company does get into the cost share program.

Prior to the public hearing, Mayor Michael Duman said he would be abstaining from the voting of the ordinance.

“I do not have a conflict of interest in the literal interpretation of that, however, it may be perceived as an appearance of impropriety due to my ownership of a joining property,” said Duman. “So I will be abstaining for that reason.”

The ordinance was approved on a 7-0 unanimous vote, with
Duman abstaining.

During the final remarks portion of the March 15 meeting, Duman addressed a comment made during the March 9 School Board meeting.

“There was a statement made by one of our citizens and I assume that this individual was not purposefully misleading or disingenuous in his comments, however, the statement needs to be clarified and put in proper context. The statement was ‘City Council has done a better job funding the school system last year than they did the year before, because the year before we were last and now we’re next to last,’” Duman said. “But in its context, the number that that individual was looking at was a per pupil expenditure. All of this is available on the Virginia Department of Education Superintendent’s Report, every single number.”

Duman detailed that the per pupil expenditure has multiple funding sources such as local funding, state funding, real estate tax funding and federal funding. These funding sources are totaled and is how much is being spent per student. Funding is spent not only for instruction, but in other school aspects such as programs, free lunches, and grants.

“The most important number that we have to look at sitting here in council is where do we stand in local funding,” he explained. “Local funding — that’s our tax dollars here. We only have so much control over state and federal funding, but we have an obligation from a local standpoint to fund the school to the extent that we can,” Duman detailed. “In regards to local funding, we’re not last. We’re not next to last. In all of Hampton Roads, including Southside and the Peninsula and Newport News and Southampton, we are $79 away from being the second highest local funding per pupil in this area. Not my numbers.”

Duman provided data from the Virginia Department of Education superintendent’s report.

“We’re only $79 below Chesapeake. Chesapeake was $4,796, we are $4,717. Virginia Beach is at the top,” Duman said.

“I just wanted to put that out there, I know it’s early in the budget season, but let’s get our arms wrapped around accurate numbers. It gives much pain to see that type of rhetoric being blown around out there when that’s not really the way it is. And I hope he didn’t do it on purpose.”