Suffolk greenlights new solar facility along Kings Fork Rd

Published 10:00 am Wednesday, April 24, 2024

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In a split 5 to 3 vote with Council Members Leroy Bennett, Shelley Butler-Barlow and Timothy Johnson in opposition, Suffolk City Council voted to approve a solar energy facility for property at 1553 Kings Fork Rd. 

The approved conditional use permit request submitted by Steve Kiesling of Nansemond Solar, LLC to establish a solar facility saw approval during council’s Wednesday, April 17 meeting held at City Hall, which saw a recommendation of denial from the Planning Commission during their March 19 meeting in a 7 to 1 vote. Director of Planning & Community Development Kevin Wyne discussed the details of the facility.

“The fenced project area will encompass 36 acres of property with 32 acres of solar panel array coverage,” Wyne said. “They have provided enhanced setbacks, a 300 foot front setback and a 150 foot side setback, including landscape buffers, a 50 foot front vegetative buffer and a 25 foot side vegetative buffer consisting of preserved trees and plannings adjacent to Kings Fork Rd as well as adjoining properties to minimize the potential for adverse visual impacts with respect to the use and enjoyment of the surrounding properties.”

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Wyne detailed that while the proposed use is “not anticipated” to provide adverse impacts, the use is inconsistent with its suburban use district central growth area and that planning staff believes the site is inappropriate for the proposed use. 

In favor of the project, Cypress Creek Renewables Project Developer Patrick Harper included benefits such as generating emissions-free electricity at a low cost and generating $1 million in tax revenue for the city, offsetting over 7,000 metric tons of CO2 emissions, among others. Location-wise, Harper says the project will benefit its neighbors by being set back 300 feet from Kings Fork Rd with a 50 foot landscaping buffer to “fully screen it from offsite view.”

“We’re bringing this proposal forward for council consideration because we feel the benefits it offers outweigh the concerns over location. This area is about to change drastically with the development of Port 460, which abuts our project parcel to the south and southwest,” Harper said. “It’s going to generate a significant amount of traffic in an area that’s already dealing with congestion, our project is going to generate virtually none. It’s a great complementary use. Port 460 is going to significantly alter the local area’s aesthetic and community character. Our project can help preserve it.”

While there was no opposition to the motion, there were comments during the rebuttal period with Chris Dove saying that he had to “raise the male bovine flag.”

“The staff opinion has decided it’s inappropriate given the location for central growth area, specifically, since it’s supposed to be a residential area,” Dove said during the meeting. “So why the heck did staff approve a heavy industry industrial site right next door in the exact same central growth area – residential?”

During Dove’s session, Mayor Michael D. Duman asked if he was responding specifically to the ordinance, to which Dove confirmed that he was using an “example.” Following tension regarding a violation of his “First Amendment right,” Dove continued during his rebuttal in favor of the ordinance.

“Right now, the city staff says they don’t recommend it, because it’s in the central growth area and it’s in a residential designated area. I am rebutting that and saying why did they go ahead and approve a heavy industry area with truck sales, fuel sales, heavy equipment, industrial storage, machine shops and waste-related above ground storage tanks no less,” Dove said. “So staff opinion that a heavy industry site fits into the planned residential, rural area, but a small green energy solar farm does not.”

He continued.

“I’d like Councilman [Timothy] Johnson to have his staff explain why 540 acres is ok to rezone, but this small parcel is not,” he ended.

Denise Murden followShe notedting her agreement with  and she detailed that the project was “well-thought out.”

“They submitted four updates to this proposal within a six month timeframe and the planning staff provided seven recommendations for conditions that the developer agrees to,” Murden said. “…a solar farm would mean NSA [Nansemond-Suffolk Academy] would have potential access to create a back entrance as truck traffic ratchets up 90 percent – and the Mayor himself gave me that figure the other day – from Port 460.”

Duman says he believed the project would be a “win-win” for everyone.

“The 300 foot setback is what sold me on it, I think it creates five to eight acres worth of green space, which could still be cultivated along with the additional screening,” Duman said. “And the reason that the staff did not recommend is because it is in a growth area… We say the comprehensive plan is a plan. So it’s on the edge of this central growth area, but when you look at the pros and the cons, it appears to me that we’re much better off with the solar. Which as absolutely, as far as adequate facilities [are] concerned, no effect on the schools, no effect on traffic.”

Duman continued.

“It’s basically going to be pretty benign when it’s put in and provide a very nice buffer for that area, for upcoming years,” he said.