Board denies appeal for 7 Bridges project

Photo of the 7 Bridges Solar Project map provided by Ann Neil Cosby.

 

Monday’s Board Meeting began with the public hearing for an appeal by Longroad Energy for the Seven Bridges Solar Project. The Mecklenburg County Planning Commission voted unanimously in October 2021 to deny the proposed project on the grounds that it does not meet the Comprehensive Plan Guidelines set out by the county.

An attorney at McGuireWoods in Richmond, Ann Neil Cosby, explained her understanding of the language used in the County’s Comprehensive Plan. Cosby first explained that in compliance to Virginia Code, a ‘public utility facility’ may be constructed, established, or authorized, the general location or approximate location, character, and extent thereof must be submitted to and approved by the local planning commission and be ‘substantially in accord’ with the adopted comprehensive plan. 

Longroad Energy argues that the Seven Bridges Project is ‘substantially in accord’ with Mecklenburg’s Comprehensive Plan. Cosby points out that substantially in accord does not equate strict compliance with every point of the local comprehensive plan. 

Cosby also pointed out that the Planning Commission determined that Longroad’s Project was not ‘substantially in accord’ with the County’s Comprehensive Plan due to the following: the facility’s proximity to the South Meherrin River (including the creeks of Finneywood and Horsepan which flow into the Meherrin River); that construction of the solar facility will removed 799 acres of Agricultural property from the production; the location is within two miles (3,012.8 feet) of an existing solar facility (Grasshopper Solar); and the project is over 500 acres. 

However, Cosby states, “What the Planning Commission did was look at the criteria for [a Special Exception Permit (SEP)] and applied that during the Comp Plan review process instead of looking at the Comp Plan as a whole.” She continued, “The Board should overrule the Planning Commission because [the criteria they used] is premature and we’re not there yet. If the SEP application is before the Board and the Planning Commission, that’s when it would come up.”

Cosby states that when looking at the correct criteria, the project is satisfactory.

Mecklenburg County’s own 2035 Plan—which was amended in 2017 to include guidelines for future solar facilities—illustrates that the following criteria should be satisfied by a proposed solar project: 

  1. The project should be located on brownfield or near existing industrial uses (but not within growth boundaries). Cosby argued that only three brownfields have been identified in Mecklenburg County, and all three are under 25 acres. However, the proposed site is outside of any growth boundaries. The site is also arguably located near an existing utility use, which she identifies as Grasshopper Solar. She also states that Longroad Energy is mitigating buffers and setbacks to ensure no visible changes are done to the area, as well as providing a beneficial use for the non-productive land.
  2. The site should be located adjacent to, or in close proximity to, existing electric transmission lines. She argues that the Seven Bridge Project meets this guideline as well. 
  3. Site should avoid or minimize to prime farmland(s) of statewide importance as defined by the USDA and Commonwealth. To this point, she states that only 206 total acres will be underneath solar panels. Only approximately 14.6 acres of prime farmland will be impacted by Project activities. The site is also not currently being used for agriculture, and this Project will not remove any farmland from active production.
  4. The site should be located outside of any identified growth boundary and not within one mile of any town boundary. The proposed site is located more than two miles outside of the current Chase City limits and outside of any growth boundaries. 
  5. The site should be located outside of the view of any scenic, cultural, or recreational resources (solar facilities may not be seen from any surrounding points that are in line-of-sight with a resources location. Cosby states, “The Project is not located within the view shed of any scenic, cultural or recreational resources. It is primarily surrounded by adjacent timber tracts, and there is a minimum 150-foot setback from all project boundaries.”

Looking again at the Mecklenburg County 2035 Plan, it states that the permitted size and scale of a proposed facility may vary based on the proposed location, character of the area, and extent of the facility. Furthermore, it states, "if a proposed location is not near a town, not visible from a major road, or if the facility will occupy only a relatively small portion of a large site, then a larger size and scale of the proposed facility may be appropriate.” Cosby shared that 799 acres encompasses what all will be inside the fencing of the project; not all 799 acres will be covered by construction. She covers again that of the 799 acres proposed, only 206 will be covered by panels.

Following this presentation covering the language used in the Planning Commission’s decision, citizens presented their own opinions of the Project. Jean Clary Bagley argued that, “Longroad & Seven Bridges are also committed to work with our school system to provide opportunities for on-site visits, technical training, and even opportunities for hands-on training for our kids…It appears that Seven Bridges Solar Project will strengthen our economy, create jobs, increase tax revenue over $7 million, provide learning opportunities for our children. How can Mecklenburg County reject these benefits for our community and our citizens?”

Monty Hightower—another citizen in favor of the Seven Bridges Project—shared, ““I have seen firsthand what the economic development can do with the revenue from these projects… Chase City has come to life in the last two years, and a lot of that has been due to the money that these solar farms have been spending. In the last few months since all of them pulled out, we have seen a downturn in Chase City. One restaurant that had opened up has closed because of a lack of customers. We want to try to keep Chase City going on the path we were on.”

He continued, “I know there were some problems with the Grasshopper plant, and now the Bluestone project. It’s just like everything else; there’s a learning curve. I think the next project has learned from the mistakes the other two projects made… I would like to see this project be passed, or at least discussed a whole lot more to find out if they can do it like it should be done.”

Following statements comparing Longroad’s proposed Project to other facilities in California and its own predecessors in Mecklenburg County, Chase City’s Mayor Alden Fahringer spoke to Longroad’s character. 

“I think if you look at their track record and what they have done in the past, they are a company that you can deal with and count on to do things right. I will tell you that from my own experience, every dealing and every concern we’ve had we’ve been able to bring to them and have them positively address it. Not just with nice words or platitudes, but actually putting it into their plan and putting it into the shape of their map to fit the things that we have requested. We wanted further setbacks, we wanted buffer zones, we wanted mature trees to grow up and shrubbery and different things to block vision from the roads, we wanted positive assurances on their part that they would put cleaning stations for their trucks to keep the mud off our roads, to keep the mud coming off of workers’ boots from coming into our restaurants. In our other interactions we’ve had with them and the education they want to bring to our children, this is all positive,” he stated.

“I hope you look to them and not at the sins of other groups that have come through, but let them get through this process so they can get to the SEP and then hold them to it to account for the things they have promised to you.”

On the other hand, John Janson brought forth concerns about potential damage to the Meherrin River. “There’s several communities that get their drinking water from it. South Hill has alternative sources, but some communities don’t. The risk alone of damaging that water source could be more costly than any revenue the county would ever receive… I just want everybody to keep in mind, the Meherrin has been designated by this body as a scenic river. Let’s not forget this and let’s not let it get damaged or destroyed.”

Judy Brothers, in a Letter to the Editor first published by the Southside Messenger, but read aloud at the Board meeting today brought up that, “a good portion of our existing solar sites are causing uncontrollable erosion that has damaged our creeks and rivers in many Virginia counties.”

In a unanimous decision, the Board of Supervisors elected to deny the appeal and uphold the original recommendation by the Planning Commission. 

Council Member Charles Jones state, “You know, if it was a smaller scale, I wouldnt have a problem. But its just too big. Thats the number one thing. And it is right there at Grasshopper; I dont care if you do have a row of trees.”

At the close of Monday’s meeting, Glenn Barbour remarked, “This county is not anti-solar by any means, but there are limitations that we feel like we need to operate in… There are certainly down-sides to development of these [solar] facilities, and no one that comes before us seems to really address that…It’s difficult decisions that we have to make here concerning these solar farms, but we rely on the Planning Commission to do the leg work on these things and they do an excellent job of that.”