Planning Commission hears solar facility request

Published 6:20 pm Wednesday, December 27, 2023

Suffolk Planning Commission denied a Conditional Use Permit(CUP) request for a new solar energy facility. After the motion for a recommendation of approval failed in a 3 to 4 vote, the motion for a recommendation for denial of the CUP was approved in a 4 to 3, with Commissioners Edwards, Gerald Goodman, Anita Hicks, and vice chairman Staylor voting in favor of the denial.

During its Planning Commission meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 19, commissioners observed a public hearing regarding applicant Onur Ozdemir of Switchgrass Solar LLC’s proposal to establish a 49-megawatt solar facility on property on Hozier Rd. Due to an illness, Chairman Arthur Singleton was not in attendance with Vice Chairman Mills Staylor conducting the meeting for the afternoon. Suffolk Senior Planner Joshua Bateman, AICP, provided the staff report detailing the CUP request.

“The facility would be approximately 49 megawatts consisting of solar panels, underground cables, inverters, access roads, fencing and related facilities and the subject parcels are located in the central growth area and the entering suburban use district in our comprehensive plan,” Bateman said. “The proposed facility will occupy approximately 235 acres within the fenced enclosure of that facility on land that is mostly cropped land but does include significant areas of mixed hardwood and pine forest, approximately 126 and a half acres of it, particularly in the southwestern and east central portions of the property … Underground on-site transmission lines will be installed to transmit electricity generated by this solar plant to a project substation located at the northeast corner of the property to be installed on the property, which will then connect via overhead lines to the existing substation just to the north at 891 Hosier Rd.”

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During the staff conclusion portion of Bateman’s presentation, it noted that in accordance with Section 31-306(c) of the United Development Ordinance, conditional uses shall be permitted by both the Planning Commission and City Council “only if the applicant demonstrates that the eight (8) criteria listed in that section have been met.” It noted that the request use met the criteria except for subsections 6 and 8: 6, requiring a finding that “establishment of the proposed use shall not impede the orderly development and improvement of surrounding property for uses permitted within the zoning district” and 8 requiring a finding that “the public interest and welfare supporting the proposed conditional use shall be sufficient to outweigh the individual interest which is adversely affected by the establishment of the proposed use.” Likewise, the staff recommended the denial of the request. Bateman expressed his issues with this.

“I have real concerns about a future need to expand growth into the growth area consistent with the recommendations of the comprehensive plan and there being a solar energy facility, which is a fairly land intensive use, basically occupying that same land,” Bateman said. “ … we’re not going to be able to get to 1,000 houses if 2,000 or some acres are taking out of that equation by a solar energy facility. This is in an area where we’re planning for future growth, and if we stick to our comprehensive plan, we should seek for ways to accommodate that growth and rezone for that growth in the future.”

During the public hearing, Troutman Pepper Law Firm Land Use Attorney Rob Beaman, representing Switchgrass Solar LLC, said that it is an affiliate of RWE Clean Energy, LLC, which owns and operates the Pleasant Hill solar facility that is south of the application’s project site.

“This is essentially an extension of that Pleasant Hill facility and would operate with the same personnel and the same management from RWE throughout the two sites,” Beaman said. “In terms of site layout, the site has been designed to avoid sensitive environmental features including streams and critical areas in wetlands, but also to provide generous buffing and setbacks … The project would also connect to the existing Virginia Power substation, which is located just north of the site across Hozier Rd, which is another significant advantage of the proposed project location.”

Beaman continued.

“Solar facilities, in general, don’t have the same types of impacts to surrounding properties that more intensive forms of development do, in terms of light noise and increased traffic, and the design of this site, in particular, would further ensure that this facility is compatible with our surrounding properties,” he said.

While no opposition was present during the hearing, discussions were had with Commissioners Oliver Creekmore, Maryellen Baur and Johnnie Edwards in a Q&A with Beaman. After Edwards asked how many trees they would cut for the project, Beaman said that “approximately 60 acres” would be removed while leaving 80 acres of forest untouched. Bateman also returned and noted that the 2035 Comprehensive Plan “is silent” on solar facilities.

“Solar energy facilities weren’t a trend when that comprehensive plan was being considered and adopted. We hope to remedy that — I certainly hope that that’s remedied in the [2045] Comprehensive Plan that we’re currently looking at right now, but because of that there isn’t specific guidance about where solar facilities should go, shouldn’t go, what kinds of features we should be protecting,” Bateman said. “Typically, you’d want your comprehensive plan to discuss this and describe this and to provide that clear policy recommendation that you’re looking for, but our plan doesn’t have that. It doesn’t really say that it’s not the appropriate use for that, but what the comprehensive plan does say is what uses are appropriate for that entering suburban district …”

The CUP request will go before the Suffolk City Council with a recommendation of denial during their Jan. 17 City Council meeting.

Editor’s note: Updated second passage at 1:55 p.m., Friday, Dec. 29 to reflect clarity and accuracy.