Despite numerous people protesting a proposed solar farm in the Woolwine area, the Patrick County Planning Commission set a public hearing on the project for Tuesday, February 20.
The hearing will be at 6 p.m. in the community room of the Patrick & Henry Community College (P&HCC) Stuart site.
Larry Cowley, chairman of the commission, said the hearing will determine whether the project is substantially in accord with the county’s Comprehensive Plan, “which they are. All we do is hold this public hearing.”
Afterward, Cowley said the project would be considered by the Board of Supervisors, which will schedule another public hearing and eventually vote on the project.
“As I understand it, this is a document from the DEQ (Department of Environmental Quality) that Energix (the parent company) has to have approved by the county,” Cowley said.
The document “says they’re substantially in accord with our comprehensive plans. That’s all it is,” Cowley said and emphasized that the supervisors are not considering approval of solar energy. The board will vote only on whether the project is in accord with the plan.
When Energix gets that approval, Cowley said the company can start the process of applying to DEQ, Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR), Appalachian Power, and other government agencies, and start negotiating the siting plan with the county. That plan also must be approved before the project moves forward.
Moscato Solar, LLC, a subsidiary company of Energix, is pursuing the project locally.
According to the review application, Moscato is proposing the development and construction of a 13.2MWac solar facility to be located on three parcels of land that totals approximately 213 acres privately owned by Michael McKenzie, a Woolwine-area property owner.
Land parcel IDs for the project include 4815-67, 4815-70, and 4815-109.
According to the review application, fewer than 100 acres are planned for panel coverage, with designated areas used for setbacks, vegetative buffers, wildlife crossings, and wetland protection areas. The site design accounts for 50 feet of setbacks from all public rights-of-way and adjacent property lines.
The review application states Moscato would contribute an estimated $3,197,286 million in additional tax revenue to Patrick County over its approximate 42-year lifetime.
Fairy Stone Solar, LLC, another subsidiary company of Energix, also is pursuing a solar farm project on Commerce Street in Stuart.
Several county residents spoke out against the proposed project.
Mary-Beth Clement said “I and others have publicly spoken about several negatives to these projects and the ultimate goal of destroying rural lands and the rural way of life for money. Even members of this commission and supervisors themselves have expressed to citizens they don’t want these in their backyard.”
Despite this, Clement said board members seem to still be leaning towards approving solar projects because of pressure from Richmond and potential litigation that the county is sure to lose.
She said no one has spoken about these threats in detail and asked for enlightenment about the pressure from Richmond, potential litigation, and whether there’s a precedent that shows the county would lose.
“I cannot understand why you as representatives of the county, and its residents and landowners, would approve projects based on potential threats from outsiders when the majority of citizens are opposed to this destruction and you yourselves don’t want these projects in your backyard,” she said.
Malcolm Roach said when the issue of solar first came about he was upset, and “asked at the Board of Supervisors for acreage limits – five acres for a solar farm. That didn’t happen. We asked for a water retention pond at every solar site so that the water could be cleaned and put back into our streams the way it should be,” he said.
Roach said Energix has been fined multiple times because of sediment runoff into streams where it has projects.
“Patrick County feeds everybody down below us their water. Do we want to pollute their water too? Do we?” he asked.
Roach said this farm, which will be near Sycamore Baptist Church in Woolwine, is only about 50 feet off the road in some spots.
He also wonders why people would do this to their neighbors.
“It’s a proven fact that where solar farms are put up, the property value around them goes down,” he said and urged the audience to not be afraid of litigation.
In Pennsylvania, where Roach lived before moving to Patrick County, “the counties went back against the state again and again and won. Don’t be afraid of litigation, that’s a fear tactic,” he said.
Gail Spencer said she’s been living in the county for more than 20 years and loves the county’s beauty.
“We already allowed the mountain to be pretty much destroyed. The trees have been cut down, and when hard rains come, mudslides occur,” Spencer said, adding that also is likely further up the mountain when trees are destroyed for the solar farm.
“We don’t need more trees cut down to accommodate I don’t know who, to accommodate somebody to put solar panels in rural areas. It is not recommended to put these solar panels in rural areas,” she said.
In her research, Spencer said solar panels are not efficient if they don’t get a high enough quantity of sun, “and then there’s the chemicals that come out and seep into the ground, seep into our waters, our waterways, seep into places that get their water from peoples’ wells or streams,” she said.
As a member of Sycamore Baptist Church, Spencer said she doesn’t want this for the church or the county.
LeAnne Seeley said one of her main concerns was lithium batteries that might be used in the solar farms.
“There was a solar farm up in New York that caught on fire, lithium batteries, and they couldn’t put it out. People had to be kept in their homes because of the toxicity of the burn-off from the solar panel,” she said.
Seeley said she has heard nothing about this or if there is a plan in place if the solar panels catch fire.
She also asked the commission questions regarding the 1,000-acre limit, the number of farms allowed in the county, and where the power was going to be brought to the powerlines.
David Profitt said from what he’s seen, the county is no way near what would be considered a prime solar power generating location.
“We do not have enough hours of sunlight during the day to make it profitable. Where that comes into play, right now it’s being pushed because of our tax money that’s being given away largely to investors in other countries that have been funding companies like the ones that you see here that are presenting this thing,” he said.
Profitt alleged that companies find places that lack the resources or knowledge about the potential downsides to fight. He also offered his assistance to the commission if they wanted or needed it.
Grant Foley said he is the first landowner downstream from where this project is going to be.
“This is a 238-tract of land, 120 acres of its dedicated to this solar plantation. This property’s been clear-cut in the last four years,” he said.
Four years ago, Foley said his corner property stone was two feet from the creek bank. Since it’s been clear cut, the runoff is ten-fold what it’s ever been in the over 50 years he’s lived there.
“Now, my land is eroded to within three inches of my property stone – from just a clear cut,” he said. “So, when you take 120 acres, that’s no trees, no root structure, nothing to stop the water, how much more is going to come into the creek?”
Foley said his well and his mother’s well are right beside the creek, and this will affect their water.
“It’s all good and well for Mr. McKenzie. Do you all know what he’s getting for this? One hundred dollars per acre per month – $144,000 a year is going into his pocket to wash my land down the creek,” Foley said.
The bridge that goes across the creek that leads to his mother’s house has a concrete pad beneath it. Since the clear cut, “the bank was right at the edge of the pad. Now, it’s cut underneath that pad two-and-a-half feet,” he said.
Foley said it would cost $10,000 to take the bridge out, dig the creek out, and fix to put the bridge back, “because of a clear-cut” on his neighbor’s property.
Mary Smith said the decisions don’t just impact the county’s residents, but future children and grandchildren.
“It’s something that we all need to pray about. We need to go with our convictions, not with the money that you’re going to get in your pocket,” she said, crying.
John Hopkins said a solar company approached him about a property he owns in Henry County.
“We told them we weren’t interested. The land that they were interested in was a 204-acre tract of land. We didn’t want to be the ones that opened up a can of worms,” he said.
Hopkins said the company makes the money sound good. He asked the man who came to look at his property how much land he had in solar farms.
“He had zero. So, I asked him how many acres the solar company owned that were in solar farms. He said zero,” Hopkins said and added that he believes if a company can make enough money from a solar farm, it should buy the land instead of leasing it from someone else.
“They don’t want to buy it because they are uncertain themselves of what the long-term effects are,” he said.
Mike DeCapp said one of the things that attracted him and his family to the area was the view, “but the thing that makes this area so beautiful can also be the biggest danger of living down here. That’s these dense, old-grown forests. People say you don’t want this in your backyard when my backyard is 10-20-30,000 acres of forests, no, I don’t.”
Everyone’s heard about the dangers of the panels and toxicity, DeCapp said, adding that Energix has said the panels are safe under normal working conditions, but he wondered what if the next Tuggle’s Gap fire, which burned more than 1,000 acres last fall, is Buffalo Ridge and the fire runs over this solar facility.
“You can say all you want to that these panels aren’t flammable. The USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) says forest fires can range 2,000 degrees,” he said. If that’s the case, “it’s gonna burn them, it’s gonna melt them,” he said.
Ed Pool also spoke about the dangers of cadmium telluride in solar panels.