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Surry Planning votes down solar farm

Surry County’s Planning Commission, on Sept. 27, recommended against allowing Charlottesville-based Hexagon Energy to construct a proposed 150-megawatt solar farm at the intersections of routes 10 and 40 in the Spring Grove area.

The Loblolly Solar project, as it has been named, is proposed to be sited on approximately 900 acres of timberland and bring 205 jobs and roughly $16 million in taxes for the county over the project’s 40-year lifespan.

“When we look at the goals of our county as they’re stated right now, they’re kind of in conflict,” said Commissioner Diane Cheek, referring to a section of the county’s 2020 Comprehensive Plan that states solar farms should be “sited as close to existing electric transmission lines as possible.” The proposal calls for roughly two miles of utility easements to connect the panels to the existing lines.

The Planning Commission’s vote, while unanimous, is still only a recommendation. The county’s Board of Supervisors will have the final say.

The company has requested four approvals for the project: a comprehensive plan amendment, a rezoning, a conditional use permit and a resolution declaring the proposal “substantially in accord” with the amended comprehensive plan.

Hexagon submitted its plans to the county in August 2020 and has revised its application three times over the past year after holding eight community meetings. One of the recent changes involved a proposed text amendment to the county’s zoning ordinance that would have permitted the easement parcels to remain zoned agricultural, with only the land on which the panels will sit being rezoned industrial.

The commission voted unanimously to recommend denial of all four requests, plus denial of the proposed text amendment, even though it had received a letter from 15 county residents urging support for the project.

The county held two public hearings that evening: one on the proposed text amendment and the other on the four original requested approvals, which resulted in a mix of speakers for and against the proposal.

“I have heard from Dominion employees that if Loblolly Solar tries to hook into the existing towers that run adjoining my subdivision and cross Upper Chippokes Creek that they will overload the system because the system on those towers is already at full capacity,” said Katherine Wells.

But Tirzah Sarro-Jaynes, a Phoebus High School science teacher who owns one of the parcels on which the solar farm would be built, urged support for the renewable energy project.

“Sometimes it’s really easy for us to say that the energy companies are the bad guys, and they’re coming in here … they’re going to ruin what Surry County is, and they’re just providing a service that we’re demanding,” Jaynes said. “We’re sitting here under these lights. We all have cellphones that need to be plugged in … what kind of world are we going to leave our kids if we continue to pull coal out of the ground?”

David Bates, who owns a majority of the parcels involved, said he initially bought the land to thwart development in Surry County.

“I’m anti-development. Every time somebody tried to buy a piece of land and I thought they would put a house up on it, I’d try to buy it,” he said.

Now, he has two adult sons living out of the state who, should they inherit the land, would prefer “you turn it down, because they’d just sell it and chop it up, get their money,” Bates said.