Southampton County — Still in a position to lead

Published 12:23 pm Saturday, September 24, 2016

by Westley B. Drake

After learning about the first proposed “utility scale” solar project nearly three months ago, I immediately decided that I needed to perform careful research on the topic of renewable energy development and specifically “utility scale” solar projects. I have friends who farm the land that is included in these proposals, and I also have friends who are some of the landowners involved. Due to the sensitivity of this proposal in my community, I knew I needed to step up and learn all that I could in order to provide my fellow citizens with clear, researched information.
In the process, I identified one of the major problems that this industry currently presents to rural areas.
Rather than working hand-in-hand with agriculture, as it is advertised to, “utility scale” solar projects are actually a direct competitor with agriculture.
Commonly between 15 and 1,000 acres in size, “utility scale” solar projects are sweeping across the country, and removing large amounts of farmland in the process.
I would like to address the contribution of agriculture to our county, state and nation. Agriculture is the largest industry in the Commonwealth of Virginia accounting for over $52 billion annually. Every job in the agriculture and forestry industries supports another 1.6 jobs elsewhere in Virginia’s economy. When agriculture and forestry are combined, they make up 8.1 percent of the state’s total gross domestic product.
Southampton County is the largest row-crop producing county in the state, with 104,710.7 acres certified through the USDA Farm Service Agency in 2016. According to the 2012 USDA Agriculture Census for Southampton County, the local agriculture industry generates about $80 million per year in gross revenue at the production level.
I have heard several people make the claim that a 1 percent loss in farmland will not impact the local economy that greatly. However, I would like for you to consider you that agriculture is a production industry, and production industries are the root of the economy. Every dollar that is made in a production industry will be multiplied several times as a commodity is produced, then transported to market, manufactured into a product, transported to other markets, sold again and so on. You get the idea.
Also, keep in mind the number of local businesses who rely on supplying farmers with goods and services throughout the year. So if you remove 1 percent from $80 million it will result in a loss of $800,000 at the production level. This amount will multiply into further losses in the local economy due to the reduction of farm operations in business, total acres in production, and the total amount of commodities produced. In other words, the reduction of $800,000 per year in the local economy is just the starting point, and the further economic loss will add to amount.
I would like to also address the concern of landowners’ rights as it relates to the topic of “utility scale” solar farms. It is the responsibility of each landowner in the county to know how their land is zoned, and what the permitted uses are for that zoning district. I would also add that it is the responsibility of the solar company, in this case, to know how the land is zoned in the areas that they are interested in developing. At any time, any landowner in the county may submit an application to the county and pay the associated fee in order to be considered for a comprehensive plan amendment, a rezoning application, and a conditional use permit. However, it is important to note that “spot-zoning” is not recommended for a variety of reasons, and thus the county generally does not endorse it. I would like to further point out that “utility scale” solar farms are not permitted in agricultural zoning districts, because they are not an agricultural use, and they are more industrial with regards to their intended application and overall appearance.
Americans should never be forced to choose between supporting renewable energy development, and supporting agriculture. As Americans, I feel we need to support both of these industries in order to ensure that future generations will have an abundance of food and clean energy. Most Americans agree that solar panels should be installed on idle land, abandoned parking lots, areas surrounding industrial parks, on the rooftops of homes and businesses, and the list goes on. Most Americans also agree that productive farmland is a very precious asset which is necessary to produce the food, fuel, and fiber that we all rely on every day. Southampton County is in a position to lead our state and our nation by preserving its productive farmland and identifying that there are many other locations which are better suited for “utility scale” solar development.
WESTLEY B. DRAKE is a local framer in the Newsoms area is a passionate advocate for agriculture . He can be reached at