Planning postpones decision on solar farms

Published 8:16 am Saturday, August 13, 2016

Before a standing-room only audience on Thursday evening, the Southampton County Planning Commission chose to delay discussing and voting on two proposed solar farms. The meeting, which began at 7:30 p.m., included a 1-1/2 hour presentation by Southampton Solar LLC, followed by another 1-1/2 hours of many residents speaking for — but mostly against — allowing for amendments to the Comprehensive Plan and Zoning Map, as well as issuing a Conditional Use Permit.

If granted, they could enable several individuals and farms to allow the establishment of solar farms in the Boykins voting district.

Tom Tuffey with Community Electric and Solar gave most of the presentation about the benefits solar farms could offer Southampton County.

At 9 p.m., the hearing began, starting with Rosemary Wilson, who said she’s representing one of the farm families that are interested in a solar farm. Wilson, who said she serves on the Virginia Beach Planning Commission, sympathized with the Southampton group.

“One of things we struggle with is how to pay for services without increasing taxes … The farm has been in family over 150 years in Newsoms. We see this as a really good opportunity to keep the farm.”

In contrast, Gary Cross, who identified himself as “a proud farmer in Southampton County,” said to the commissioners, “I hope you’ve gone out to educate yourself. I hope you’ve kept an open mind.”

He asked, “Who’s going to help me pay my light bill?”

Cross compared the interest in solar farms to what he called the “ethanol fad.”

“The American taxpayers paid the bill for that,” Cross said. “I think we need an impact study done on our own.”

He also thinks that whenever the ground becomes saturated from rain that the “ground will bubble up and they [the panels] will topple over like dominoes. I just see this is not a good use for agricultural land.”

Closing with Thomas Jefferson’s quote, “We are nothing but stewards of the land” drew applause from a largely respectful audience. Rarely did Chairman Michael G. Drake need to bang a gavel to bring order to the hearing.

Rebecca Drake of Newsoms asked audience members that were farmers to stand up, which included a large swath. Then she asked those 40 and older to sit down, which left approximately 10 younger farmers.

Drake urged the commissioner to leave the comprehensive plan as is. She acknowledged that solar power is “clean and quiet,” but doesn’t see residents getting the benefit the electricity or any new money.

“Food versus energy should not be a choice any of should make,” she said. “Please pay attention to the red flags. Please.”

Further, “Please do not change the Comprehensive Plan for sake of solar companies. They will wait a little bit longer,” Drake concluded, also earning applause.

Westley Drake of Newsoms was the next speaker, echoing that “solar power companies should have been involved in comprehensive planning.”

The 25-year-old farmer said, “We may be a rural county. But we’re not a dumb county.”

“There are many, many ways to produce energy, but there is only way to produce food and that is to grow it from the ground. I ask the board to deny these proposals.”

Robin and Dennis Pickeral of Merrydale Farms spoke in support. They said they feel that if the solar farms were approved these would benefit the county. This would be in the form of electricity to the power grid, taxes to the county and clean energy.

“It’s the best of both worlds,” said Robin, adding that while she and Dennis no longer live in the county, they still love it.

Bob Powell of Branchville, another supporter, responded to Westley Drake’s comments and column that was published on Aug. 7 in The Tidewater News (“Southampton County is in a position to lead.”).

Chairman Drake interrupted once to challenge Powell on a point; he thought that the speaker was discounting the importance of a commodity such as corn.

Margaret Smith Murray said, “I am here in support of Community Energy Solar. I believe this will be the best use of this portion of my agricultural land.”

Murray added that she doesn’t see it as competition with traditional agriculture.

In a raised voice, Hugh Vincent said, “I’m going to talk common sense! What difference does 1 percent going to make?”

Noting the increases in agriculture production over the decades, he didn’t see how a small percentage of solar farms was going to hurt.

“Don’t be negative,” Vincent said. “Be positive in everything you do!”

Jim Strozier of Highground Electric also added his support for the company.

“I feel they do have the best interests of the county and we should be looking to work with them.”

Seeing the clock at 10:30 p.m., Chairman Drake asked fellow commissioners about postponing the talk and vote on this particular hearing issue, as well as the following two. J. Michael Mann made the motion, it was seconded and approved.

The panel reviewed the other two steps, and took the same action for each. They did likewise with GEENEX, which made its pitch. In the meantime, a large number of residents had left before that company’s presentation.

• In other business, the commission all voted to recommend allowing Bruce Herrin Jr.’s request to vacate an alley for the purpose of building a new home in the 30000 block of Maple Avenue in Sedley.

“The alley was a proposed street many, many years ago, but never got built,” said Lewis, adding that the alley is one of many, but each would have to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

Herrin confirmed his intention: “I’m planning to build a single family home. Technically, I don’t own that land. I just purchased the lot a couple of months ago.”