Despite modifications to address sound and other concerns by those wishing to put a three-megawatt solar farm in the Whaleyville area, the Planning Commission voted not to recommend a conditional use permit for the project.
The recommendation against the permit, by a 6-1 vote at its May 18 meeting, followed a 5-2 vote against tabling its consideration for another 30 days. The project had already been tabled for 30 days at the commission’s April 20 meeting to allow for a meeting between project developers and people who live near the project site.
Interim City Attorney William Hutchins Jr. told the commission prior to the votes that City Council could consider the changes by project developers when it takes up the matter.
The modifications include having its 24 string inverters no closer than 450 feet to any adjacent properties, rather than the 150 feet it had originally proposed, as well as moving the transformer to 650 feet away from the closest home.
Sightlines would include four different types of trees throughout the perimeter of the solar farm that will start out being six to eight feet and growing to 15 to 30 feet, at a cost of about $100,000, according to Michael Doniger, vice president of Chaberton Solar Whitney, which has applied for the conditional use permit. It has also added two small areas of reforestation to effectively extend the width of the landscaping buffer around the property, especially at the southern end of the property, which is near a stream, and the northwest part of the property.
All of the power lines going north toward U.S. Route 13 will be underground, Doniger said, until they get to the Dominion right-of-way near the road at the end of Great Fork Road.
“In a very real way, we have improved the project,” said Martin Speroni, an attorney with Saunders & Ojeda in Suffolk representing the project applicants. “We have dispelled some misinformation that was out there. … We have made very positive changes, and I think we have a better project.”
Staff planner Kevin Wyne said the city received additional information about the project on May 14. The city also received a link May 18 to a Change.org petition with 71 names on it opposed to the project.
The proposed three-megawatt unmanned solar farm would be on 108 acres of property owned by Adam Rountree and Brandon Simpson, though Chaberton Solar Whitney plans to locate it on 24 acres in the southeast quadrant of the intersection between Great Fork Road and Lucy Cross Road.
Two separate solar facilities would be on the site, a one-megawatt facility and a two-megawatt facility, with the two appearing to operate as one, according to the staff report for the project. The two facilities would take up 15 of the 24 acres.
Doniger said he had been taken aback by a recording of noise coming from a solar farm on U.S. Route 460, and decided to go out to that site to record its noise levels, and then also had noise levels recorded from a solar farm it has in Washington, D.C. operated at a convent by its affiliate, Greenbacker Group.
He said that if people were at least 50 to 100 feet away from its string inverters at the D.C. site, they wouldn’t hear them because it goes underneath the ambient noise in the area, though the inverters at that site are about 400 feet from the convent.
But at the U.S. Route 460 site, people would have to be at least 400 feet away from it before it would blend into the noise, even with trucks on the road.
Addressing concerns about the possibility of declining property values, Doniger said there is no evidence to support that property values go up or down due to proximity to a solar farm.
As part of the project, the ground-mounted solar arrays would be a maximum of 10 feet in height, and a seven-foot chain link fence would be built. A 50-foot wide vegetative buffer would be put in place near properties to the west, and a 25-foot vegetative buffer to the north at Lucy Cross Road, and a 50-foot setback to any nearby properties.
According to a March 11 letter from Century Engineering, two of the three existing forested wetland areas would stay undisturbed, but one 0.19-acre wetland area within the solar array would require wetland forest clearing of about 8.1 acres.