Local group fights to strengthen solar industry ordinances in county

An aerial view of the Grasshopper Solar site in Chase City. 

The Friends of the Meherrin group has applied for an amendment to Mecklenburg County’s Zoning Ordinance for the purpose of “clarifying and strengthening ordinances on large scale industrial solar utilities”.

The group consists of several residents in the Chase City and Lunenburg County areas around the proposed project sites with concerns about the environmental uncertainties surrounding large-scale solar projects.

Organization Attorney and representative, John Janson, spoke to the Mecklenburg County Planning Commission at their meeting on Thursday, January 7. “I want to be clear here, [Friends of the Meherrin River] is not an anti-solar group. We understand that the county wants the revenue, we understand the benefits to the landowners, and we understand that it benefits the local economy. We don’t want what has happened with Grasshopper to happen again and much more so if they are talking about doing it on the Meherrin River.” 

“This evolved out the public noticing problems that they were having at the Grasshopper Site in Chase City. It is my understanding that that is a 900-acre site with about 500 acres of panels. With a push by the state to get solar in they streamlined a lot of the permitting process. I believe they started with a permit by rule program where any application provided is designed to a hundred year flood will be approved pretty much immediately and any damage that exceeds the hundred year criteria the developer will not be held liable for that damage,” said Mr. Janson.

Janson went on to say that with the Grasshopper project the hundred year flood criteria has proved “inadequate and in 2020 there were more than a half dozen incidents that completely overwhelmed the water retention ponds and basically turned Butcher’s Creek red with mud from the headwaters in Chase City all the way down to Boydton”. He also explained that the reason that the project continues to have these problems is because “there is a lot of slope and its highly erodible land”.

Mr. Janson presented photos of the Grasshopper site to the Planning Commission saying; “You can see the issue they are having is that by deluding the property and then proceeding immediately to construction, there is no time for vegetation to grow”. He then added that he was glad that it was a Dominion project because Dominion has the “checkbook to get this right” but despite their many attempts to fix the problem, they are still having issues.

            He then spoke about the upcoming Seven Bridges Project, which is substantially larger than the Grasshopper project with 900 acres of panels and 1100 acres of land. The concern is that the site fronts the Meherrin River for 19,000 feet. The site developers had a teleconference meeting recently to discuss expanding buffers by the river by up to 400 feet and would carpool employees in and out of the site to mitigate traffic. “They didn’t address any substantial water quality issues that you are having with the Grasshopper site,” said Janson.

Dominion Energy’s Solar Energy Report to the Governor, Chairman of the House and Senate Committees on Commerce and Labor, and State Corporation Commission states that solar farms cannot sit on just any piece of land. “Generally usable land should not exceed 8% slope, and it should require only minimal grading as well as clearing and grubbing.”

“The Grasshopper site has destroyed Butcher’s Creek, which is the red-headed stepchild of creeks in the county, nobody is really looking for it.” Janson continued, “The damage to Butcher’s Creek has sort of gone unnoticed and we’re working on that but DEQ that is supposed to police those issues has turned a blind eye to anything having to do with green energy. So they are permitting by right but when there are problems with the site they look away.”

Janson also claims that a Barker Construction project in Boydton to add more parking to the General District Court building was recently stopped by DEQ because they “got a little mud in the creek”. He then highlighted that 29 proposed changes to the zoning ordinance.  For a complete list of the requested changes please contact Robert Hendricks at the county Zoning Office in Boydton.

Member of the Planning Commission pointed out that 2020 is one of the wettest years on record for Virginia and that alone has caused some unforeseen eroding at the Grasshopper site. “I wasn’t involved in the design of Grasshopper and I’ve got to give the engineers the benefit of the doubt but I don’t know how you can design to a hundred year flood criteria and have a multitude of failures in a twelve month period. Granted we did have more rain than normal but it didn’t all happen in one day. Had there erosion and sediment ponds been twice the size it probably would have cured the problem,” said Janson.

When speaking on the appearance of the solar projects in his district one Board Member stated that this was not what he had in mind when he thought about “country living”.

Mr. Janson answered, “There are several member of our group that are disgusted with what’s going on and have talked about moving out of the county and how much of this do we really need? Is it really that beneficial? I don’t know those answers but I do know that nobody is banging my door down to file some sort of suit about what is happening at Butchers Creek but if this happens to the Meherrin River, the county will be in a mess.”

After being asked, County Zoning Administrator Robert Hendricks explained which of the 29 proposed changes were not already covered in the current ordinance. “Well they have the $15,000 decommissioning bond for the life of the project. We collect a decommission bond for the value of the project and it stays that way for the first five years. After the fifth year it is reevaluated so it could go up or come down based on the value of the solar project.” He continued, “The sediment control, we have a bond that is collected on that. DEQ will not close their affairs until I close out my part, which has not been closed out. I went out to the project for an inspection about 2 to 3 months ago and they wanted to convert the ponds permanent and I told them that it was not ready. At that time they were working on fixing some of the areas that have erosion so we have a bond in place for that until everything is completely satisfied. The set backs that they have requested are more than ours but we could always ask for more.”

Denial of the proposed amendments was recommended based on the fact the Mecklenburg County has a solar ordinance that was approved on November 6, 2017 and is consistent with the current comprehensive plan. The motion carried unanimously.