Leaders discuss proposed Blackwater Solar Project

Published 12:43 pm Friday, March 1, 2024

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Members of the Southampton County Planning Commission have expressed significant concern about a proposed solar project in Sussex County that would cover around 8,000 acres, including buffers, and would be situated near the county’s border with Southampton.


Sussex County Administrator Richard Douglas explained in a January interview that Clēnera, a privately held renewable energy company headquartered in Boise, Idaho, submitted an application for what is known as the Blackwater Solar Project, and he estimated that Sussex County received it in spring 2023.

“We did our initial review and determined there to be incomplete information and notified them as such,” he said. “And then the time we got a revised application was (Nov. 29).”

Douglas noted that prior to the applications, an initial community meeting was held in December 2022 to discuss the proposed project.

“This has been in the works and discussions for a while,” he said. “But the initial project as initially proposed was right at about 10,000 acres.”

He also indicated that initially, a portion of the project was slated to be in Southampton County.

Southampton County Community Development Director Beth Lewis spoke to this during a Dec. 14 Southampton County Planning Commission meeting.

To commissioners, she said, “When y’all were working on the (Southampton) utility-scale solar ordinance, the attorney that came and spoke, he was working with (Blackwater Solar Project developers), and their plan was to have another 30% of this project in Southampton County. This was supposed to straddle the county line.”

But Douglas noted that the project was later pulled back.

“They went back and revised it to be roughly 5,000 acres,” he said, later clarifying that the acreage to be under solar panels would be just less than 5,000 acres, but the total project, with buffer space, etc., would be around 8,000 acres in round numbers.

He also noted that the project definitely borders Southampton at some points.


Lewis brought up the proposed Blackwater Solar Project as a “for your information” item at the Dec. 14 Southampton County Planning Commission meeting.

“This is still under review,” she said.

Looking at a map of the proposed project, Planning Commission Vice Chair John “Jack” T. Randall said, “This is going to completely transform Sussex County if this is approved.”

He later said, “Has the Southampton Board (of Supervisors) had any discussions with some Sussex representatives or board members? Because something like this is just… I mean, you sit and look at it… this is absolutely transformational because the spillover to this project to Southampton County is going to be absolutely …”

He trailed off briefly and then continued by stating that the proposed project would impact the logging industry, forestry and farming industry.

“This is huge,’ he said.

Board of Supervisors Chair Dr. Alan W. Edwards, who sits on the commission as the governing body representative, said, “To answer your question, I think you’re 100% right, and I think if the Planning Commission feels like that — and I do myself — that the Planning Commission make the recommendation to the board that we start talking with these people and just see what’s going on.”

Randall said, “I just think we need to get this to the board, and they probably all know about it, but when you look at it, it’s pretty shocking.”

Commissioners said the proposed project would have major impacts on the mill and hunt clubs.

“This is catastrophic, as far as I am concerned,” Edwards said. “This is the biggest hoax, the biggest mess. They don’t know what they’re getting into. They have no idea.”

Lewis mentioned a potential impact that the proposed project could have on Southampton in light of its solar ordinance.

“Southampton County’s ordinance says you can’t have a solar installation within five miles of any other solar installation, so if this (project) is approved, that would mean five miles into Southampton County up in this part of the county, up near Ivor, would not be eligible to be developed with solar,” she said.

When the Southampton ordinance’s five-mile stipulation was presented to Douglas in the January interview, he said, “As a planner, I would take that to mean within five miles within my jurisdiction,” noting that a locality cannot control what goes on outside its jurisdiction.

“I guess you can interpret that any way, but I would not think that it would prevent something in Southampton if there’s an application, because again it’s a totally different jurisdiction,” he said.

There was some discussion during the Dec. 14 Southampton Planning Commission meeting suggesting that Sussex County did not have a solar ordinance.

During the January interview, Douglas noted that Sussex does indeed have a solar ordinance.

“I like to think it’s a pretty good ordinance,” he said. “It’s a pretty thorough review process that’s part of it and buffer requirements and so forth. So it’s a conditional use permit review process is essentially what the approval is.”

During the Dec. 14 Southampton Planning Commission meeting, Randall continued to examine the scope of the proposed Blackwater Solar Project when he said, “It encompasses each side of the 4-H center, the majority of our border with Sussex County, and many of the properties abut right up to the line.”

In a January interview, Douglas noted that he calls the Blackwater Solar Project the 4-H Project, “because it was pretty much around the 4-H center.”

Virginia Del. Otto Wachsmann represents House District 83, which includes, but is not limited to, all of Southampton County and Sussex County, and he recently shared some of his concerns about the Blackwater Solar Project as well.

“That one in particular is troublesome for me because you’ve got the 4-H center right there on the edge of it,” he said. “There’s also Big Woods (Wildlife Management Area), which is co-owned by the forestry department, the conservancy and (Department of Wildlife Resources). They’re kind of built there for recreation, kind of enjoying the timberland that’s there, and if you put that much solar around it, that’s going to take away from that, I would expect.”

At the Dec. 14 commission meeting, Randall said, “I’d make a recommendation that we give this information to the board and that they would take appropriate action as they deem prudent to communicate with Sussex County. We just kind of leave it open-ended.”

Edwards seconded the recommendation, and it passed.

At the Southampton County Board of Supervisors’ Jan. 23 meeting, Southampton County Administrator Brian S. Thrower was instructed to reach out to Sussex County representatives to discuss the proposed project.

Asked for an update on the project on Feb. 7, Douglas stated, “The only thing new to report is that we have tentatively set a joint public hearing on Monday, March 25, at the Airfield 4-H Center, and project consideration is anticipated for May.”