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Windsor solar farm approved — again

WINDSOR

Isle of Wight County’s Board of Supervisors once again on Jan. 21 gave its approval for an 85-megawatt solar farm just outside the town limits of Windsor.

Ecoplexus Inc., a San Francisco-based solar energy developer, had come before the board in September 2019, seeking a conditional use permit for 1,080 acres located on opposite sides of West Blackwater Road, the vast majority of which was forestland. The company had requested, and been approved, to place solar panels on up to 730 acres.

According to a report by county planning and zoning staff, a wetlands delineation conducted after the initial permit was approved showed “the extent of the wetlands on these parcels was greater than anticipated,” which resulted in a need for an additional 303 acres to meet the original goal of the facility.

The latest parcels to be added to the solar project both straddle Knoxville and Willie Roberts Roads.

As was the case with the first permit, the second required a public hearing, which drew a mix of neighbors for and against the project. Dewitt Holland of the nearby Dewitt’s Automotive Center favored the idea, stating that — unlike much of the cotton, soybeans and peanuts grown locally that get shipped overseas — the electricity produced by this facility would remain in-country.

“If we don’t embrace technology, we’ll be left behind,” Holland said.

James Reynolds of Willie Roberts Road, however, argued the solar farm’s presence so near to his property would have a “huge negative impact” on his home’s value.

“We need to increase the setbacks with berms and multi-layered buffers,” Reynolds said.

Donna Eley, who’s building a home on Willie Roberts Road, submitted comments in writing saying she’d read “solar farms kill 149,000 birds annually” and was worried about “radiation with electromagnetic fields.”

In 2002, the International Agency for Research on Cancer — a part of the World Health Organization — found “limited evidence” in humans of a link between extremely-low-frequency magnetic fields and childhood leukemia and “inadequate evidence” in relation to all other cancers.

Following the public hearing, the board invited representatives of Ecoplexus to address the stated concerns. Rich Kirkland, a certified real estate appraiser, said there’s “no impact shown on property values” for homes located near solar farms.

“They don’t get hot; the type of panels that would actually kill birds are reflector panels where they focus the energy towards a type of heater,” added Chris Sanford, the company’s health and safety official. “Those beams of sunlight will kill birds, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. … There’s no EMFs, there’s less EMFs here than there would be in the background that would cause your compass to point north … no toxic chemicals are in the panels.”

The company had offered to place the fence surrounding the solar farm 75 feet back from each property line, and 125 feet whenever it bordered a residence, with a landscaped buffer, but Carrsville District Supervisor Don Rosie initially asked that the company increase the setbacks to 300 feet with berms.

While he acknowledged that the board had already approved the proposed solar farm as it was presented in 2019, “since then we’ve had a chance to see some of these farms come up and I will tell you, when I go down [Route] 460, I am not happy, and I see how close some of the solar panels are to some of the residents there and, you know, I feel bad for those individuals. … I don’t want to see that in our county.”

The problem with 300-foot setbacks, company officials said, is that the available acreage for the solar farm is already constrained due to the presence of wetlands. In his motion to approve, Rosie settled on 150-foot setbacks from residences with 4-foot earthen berms and quarterly scheduled maintenance on the landscaped buffers as conditions for approval. That motion passed 4-0 with Newport District Supervisor William McCarty absent.