Southampton board gives 4-2 nod to solar farm

Published 10:30 am Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Another standing-room only audience remained in chambers late Monday night when the Southampton County Board of Supervisors said yes to a proposal that will enable a company to establish a solar farm in the county. This followed a nearly 4 ½ hour public hearing that pushed discussion and a vote into the next morning.

Before the start, Chairman Dallas Jones reminded everyone present that eight public hearings were ahead of them, and that each speaker had five minutes at the podium. Dr. Alan Edwards of the Jerusalem District interjected to say that the board should not discuss the matter at all until the minutes from the Planning Commission discussion in August are available for the supervisors’ review.

Bruce Phillips of Capron District made a motion to allow the hearings, but postpone discussion and voting, which he eventually withdrew. He urged the board to be cautious and thorough in continuing the meeting.

Barry Porter of Franklin District said he’s been researching the matter of solar farms for six months. “I’ve gotten dozens of letters, talked to dozens of people on both sides of the issue. We got all these people here and I think we need to listen to them.”

Edwards said he felt insulted the board was going to ignore the Planning Commission.

“We would be very remiss [to continue]. There’s not reason we can’t hold off to make a decision.”

Ronnie West of the Berlin/Ivor District was in agreement with the hearing, but that voting could possibly be postponed. Carl Faison of the Boykins District and Randolph Cook of the Branchville District each said they wanted to hear what the audience had to say. The vote on Edwards’ motion was defeated, and the hearing got underway.

Beth Lewis, secretary to the Planning Commission, reviewed the first part, the Comprehensive Plan Amendment, which was made by Southampton Solar LLC. The Rezoning and Conditional Use Permit hearings followed; the board had decided to listen to all three before and discussion and votes. She noted that Planning had discussed the matter for several months. The amendment was for portions of 27 tax parcels in Boykins-Newsoms 3,685 acres total for a 100MW solar generating facility. Porter asked about the number of acres to be developed, which Lewis said was 1,437 acres; 1,288 under the panels.

Strengths included solar power being clean and compatible. Weaknesses included that it’s impossible to know if this is the first of many requests; a concern has been voiced that allowing one company to establish a solar farm will open a “Pandora’s Box” of applications.

Unlike the hearing before Planning back in August, Southampton Solar did not make a presentation. Instead, its attorney Tom Kline said he wanted to use the time to focus on key points, such as the number of applicants. He said the County has “a lot of discretions to evaluate each and every application, and that approval in no way mandates others.”

Phillips’ concern about fescue grass was answered, “We will work closely with a landscape architect to address the matter,” said Kline, adding a a noxious-weed control program would be put in place.

Jim Eck, vice president of Dominion Resources, explained that Dominion Energy “plans on owning and operating the solar farm. This project will in no way impact rates,” and added, “We do have a deadline to meet obligations of this large corporation. Dominion is not pursuing any other development … We’re a strong partner in the community long term. It’s a strong project and Dominion is ready to stand by all obligations; We do request your approval.”

The speakers for and against were many. Here are a few comments from each side.


Rebecca Drake of Newsoms reminded the board that “The CPA is our Bible and we shouldn’t take it lightly. Why are there agricultural zones? It’s your number one industry; it keeps the economy going round and round.”

Locally grown peanuts, for example, are sold to local buyers and they go right back to companies such as Hubs and Feridies.

“It is a great and powerful industry. What it entails is acres. I promise you that when you start taking acres out,  companies and businesses are looking at this situation,” she said.

Gary Cross of Sedley said, “The unknown is what scares us in this room.” He added that the Southampton Farm Bureau has struggled with the property rights issue, and came up with a resolution to put a 12-month moratorium on the matter to allow further study.

Westley Drake, also of Newsoms, noted Accomack County which had been courted for solar farms, has reportedly been having second thoughts.

“It sounds to me like they changed their minds or saw something that caused them to slow down,” he said, telling the board, “Be cautious. Find out what are their concerns and hold off on voting. I don’t think anyone here is against business development, but that you’re not listening to them.” He asked Cook and supervisors to deny these proposals.


Holt Livesay said, “I’m in favor of solar panel farms. We’re a decade behind Europe in some of this renewable energy. We’re nowhere near running out of cropland.”

Rosemary Wilson of Virginia Beach said that Kindred Farm has been in her family for over 150 years, and wants to keep it that way.

Solar farming, she added, “It’s just a different kind of farming. Farming sunlight and harvest electricity and power. I understand how you have to balance so many things. I like the fact that this is green energy. It’s a good thing for the environment and property owners.

Bob Howell of Branchville said he also entered into an agreement.

“I don’t think it’s going to be detrimental to the farming community. The weed control plan is a good one. I would urge you to vote for this plan.”

After nearly two hours on that first hearing alone, Porter made the suggestion to permit the other two before any discussion or vote. Shortly before midnight is when the board got into the matter of talking about the proposal.

Porter said that when he first heard of this project, he was against it. But that after meeting Tom Tuffey with Community Energy and Solar, “The more I learned, the less I became against the project. I’m a strong believer in landowner rights. I love agriculture. You can’t make someone farm their land. This will not be a competition to agriculture, but complement it.”

West said that “land use is a valuable tool. It’s not going to get easier with the markets in the world. I fear for them. I will not vote to take away land use, but I do agree with this man [pointing to Porter]. I see it as a financial opportunity.”

Faison said, “I appreciate the process. I think the company has been open and honest with us. As for amount of acreage, it’s a small percentage. Right now I’m in favor.”

Edwards said he was still against it.

“We ‘re opening ourselves wide open to future problems. There are too many things that haven’t been answered. I love this county, too. You might not be able to say no to the next project. … We’re supposed to be objective. We have not done our job. We have told the PC to go take a hike.”

Phillips said, “I represent Capron and people of the county. I’m a landowner on two Century Farms. We need to grow our tax base. That is certainly a consideration. But tonight, the land use is also in consideration … We need a fiscal impact study on anything of this scale so we can better understand it.”

Randolph Cook said, “I like solar energy. I think this project is a great project. I will support the project.”

On each of the three hearings, the vote was 4-2 with Edwards and Phillips saying no; Jones abstaining.

The audience reaction, particularly from the opposition, was notably subdued. There were no shouts or loud angry remarks, though one person was heard to say, “They’re useless.”

On Tuesday, county administrator Michael Johnson said that the second solar company, GEENEX, voluntarily offered to perform a fiscal analysis of its project, and asked for 45 to 60 years. That company will return to another public hearing potentially in November or December.