Isle of Wight County sees flurry of solar farm proposals

Published 4:30 pm Tuesday, May 9, 2023

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Isle of Wight County has seen an influx of proposals for new solar farms over the past two months.

County records show four pending applications received over a four-week period spanning March and April, the largest of which calls for a project site spanning more than 1,000 acres.

The first, submitted March 22 by Windsor-area resident Michael Doggett and Massachusetts-based New Leaf Energy, calls for a 3-megawatt, 18-acre site on a roughly 148-acre farm bordering Courthouse Highway and Poorhouse Road, roughly half a mile from the county courthouse and government complex.

The second, submitted April 14 by landowners William and Teresa Crocker and Colorado-based Pivot Energy Inc., calls for another 3-megawatt project on a 94-acre Old Stage Highway parcel, roughly a mile from Hardy Elementary.

The third, submitted by landowner W.C. Sawyer and Dawood, a Pennsylvania-based renewable energy engineering firm, proposes a 3-megawatt project on a 228-acre Orbit Road parcel, roughly halfway between the towns of Smithfield and Windsor.

Arlington-based solar developer AES, which purchased roughly 1,700 acres of Isle of Wight land in December for a collective $12.1 million for a then-unnamed solar farm, submitted a formal application on April 19 for a 240-megawatt project named “Sycamore Cross.” 

The project, including leased and owned land, is proposed to span multiple parcels totaling 1,960 acres. The fenced project area would be 1,070 acres, making it Isle of Wight’s second largest if approved.

AES is the same developer behind the 2019-approved, 630-acre Windsor PV-1 solar farm bordering Route 460, and the under-construction, 1,750-acre Cavalier solar farm that will eventually span the Isle of Wight-Surry county border. Cavalier, which received its approval from Isle of Wight and Surry supervisors in 2021, is presently the largest Isle of Wight has approved.

The four new requested conditional use permits for solar farms come as Isle of Wight supervisors are considering an ordinance that would impose a near-moratorium on solar development by capping the cumulative acreage of existing and proposed solar farms to 2% of the county’s “prime” farm soils, or a maximum of 2,446 acres. According to Isle of Wight Community Development Director Amy Ring, the 2% cap would not apply to any project that submits a conditional use permit application prior to the adoption of the proposed ordinance. Any project submitted prior to the date of adoption would effectively be grandfathered under the county’s existing requirements for solar farms. But at least two developers behind the four newly proposed solar farms say the impending vote didn’t factor into their decisions to apply when they did.

Tim Wolf, a spokesman for AES, said the Sycamore Cross application was “not accelerated” in response to Isle of Wight’s proposed ordinance.

Wolf said AES has been working on the project for several months, which included a pre-application meeting with county staff in early March.

“Once we felt the application was complete, we submitted it in accordance with our standard procedures,” Wolf said.

Doggett, a 71-year-old farmer, likewise denied being rushed by the pending ordinance, and suspects the other two 3-megawatt solar farms submitted in April were also in development well in advance of the Dec. 27 decision by Isle of Wight’s Planning Commission to begin drafting the 2% cap ordinance.

“None of these projects happen overnight,” Doggett said.

Doggett called the proposed solar farm on his land “an opportunity to diversify” his farming operations. According to Doggett’s submitted application, the project’s fenced area would occupy just 18 acres. The remaining roughly 131 acres would remain in use for cattle grazing and crops.

“Prime” farm soils, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, refer to land with the “best combination of physical and chemical characteristics” for growing crops. Doggett’s application describes the 18-acre project site as the “worst performing piece of ground on the property,” and states it has “only been used for hay.”

A 2021 memorandum by Ring states prime soils account for 122,296 acres, or roughly 60% of the county’s 316 square miles. Just over 80,600 acres were being actively farmed in Isle of Wight as of the 2017 USDA Census of Agriculture.

According to county and agriculture census data, 1,759 acres, or 72% of the proposed 2% cap, is already taken up by six approved solar farms, though only one is operational.

The Planning Commission voted in April to send a seventh – the 432-acre “Prairie Solar” farm proposed for Longview Drive – to county supervisors, with a 9-1 recommendation for approval. Approval of Prairie plus the four new proposed solar farms would bring the total number of solar farms in the county to 11.