Hearing for massive solar project in Buckingham set

Published 6:00 am Tuesday, October 19, 2021

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The Buckingham Board of Supervisors has voted to schedule a public hearing at its November Board meeting to discuss a special use permit (SUP) for a potential 1,996-acre, 149-Megawatt (MW) solar farm.

The expansive project could bring in $14.8 million in revenue to the county, but locals are concerned it could also be an environmental disaster waiting to happen.

During the Tuesday, Oct. 12, Board of Supervisors meeting, Buckingham Planning and Zoning Administrator Nicci Edmondston introduced supervisors to Case 21-SUP290.

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As part of the case, applicant Riverstone Solar, LLC, is requesting a special use permit to allow for the construction of the 149-MW utility-scale solar facility in the county.

The project, if approved, would be located in northern Buckingham on four parcels comprised of nearly 2,000 acres of land owned by timberland giant Weyerhaeuser. The property is roughly bound by Bridgeport Road to the south, Route 20 to the west, Hardware Road to the east and is divided through the center by Paynes Pond Road.

The project is being developed by Apex Clean Energy, a renewable energy company based out of Charlottesville.

Currently, the property the project is slated to be built upon is zoned as agriculture, or (A-1). The county’s zoning ordinance does not permit a public utility generating plant in an A-1 zone, but an SUP granted by the Board could make it happen. The Buckingham Planning Commission voted to present the Board with a recommendation of approval for the permit request.

Apex Clean Energy Development Manager Jimmy Merrick gave supervisors a presentation about the project during Tuesday night’s meeting.

According to Merrick/Apex, the project would bring significant economic benefits to Buckingham. While the land is estimated to bring in only $303,761 in tax revenue over the next 40 years given its current agricultural use, thanks to the revenue sharing ordinance supervisors approved on Tuesday night, the Riverstone Solar project has the potential to bring in a cumulative $14.8 million in revenue over its anticipated 40-year operational life, and $1.9 million in state and local tax revenue could come from the one-time pulse of economic activity associated with construction of the project. An estimated 482 jobs and $24.3 million in wages would hit Buckingham County’s construction sector during the project’s estimated one year of construction.

Numerous residents who attended Tuesday’s meeting, however, were concerned the project could have devastating environmental impacts similar to those being reported out of Louisa County following the construction of the Dominion Energy Belcher Solar Project.

According to an Oct. 5 article by CBS 6 News’ Laura French, neighbors of the project say excess stormwater runoff from the solar farm is washing away their land and contaminating local bodies of water. A Louisa County Board of Supervisors member called the project “catastrophic.”

“I am concerned that Buckingham is not staffed or funded to stand toe-to-toe with Weyerhaeuser and Apex on this project,” resident Bradley Pickins, who owns property adjacent to the Riverstone Solar project, said during Tuesday’s meeting. “The 1,000-acre Belcher project in Louisa is a frightening example of how invasive this industrial-scale development can be and how impossible it is to repair the damage.”

Patrick Chilton, public engagement manager with Apex Clean Energy, told The Herald on Friday, Oct. 15, there are several measures in place to address sediment and erosion control for the project.

“In addition to Apex’s rigorous internal design standards, Riverstone Solar will be required to obtain both an Erosion and Sedimentation Control permit from Buckingham County and a Post-Construction Stormwater permit from VDEQ (Virginia Department of Environmental Quality) prior to the start of construction,” Chilton wrote. “Both permits will go through a lengthy review process, typically 4-6 months, to ensure erosion during construction is contained and that the post-construction runoff does not exceed pre-construction conditions. We anticipate the county to hire a third-party engineering firm to support final site plan review and inspections for our project, and we’ve committed to covering those costs to ensure proper oversight is in place and best management practices are followed.”

Chilton said the Riverstone Solar project is unique in that there is an abundance of well-defined drainage areas throughout the project area, adding the industry is trending toward a more effective erosion and stormwater management strategy utilizing “significantly more, smaller stormwater basins to allow rainwater to be distributed more evenly across the site and not concentrated in any one area.”

He added only about 1% of the site will be converted to an impermeable surface. Roughly 1,000 acres of the project are planned for erosion control and stormwater measures or will be left undeveloped as conserved open space.

“Planting of grasses and other plant life within these designated areas will result in a fully stabilized site with a significant amount of new, permanent stormwater features that will contribute to an overall improvement of water quality from the current land use and enhanced protection of surrounding natural resources,” he said. “Opportunities for responsible design features like these only compound the many benefits clean energy will bring to Buckingham.”

A motion was made by District 6 Supervisor Joe Chambers and seconded by District 4 Supervisor and Board Vice Chair Thomas Jordan Miles III to schedule a public hearing at the November Board meeting for the SUP application. The Board unanimously approved to schedule the hearing with the exception of District 2 Supervisor Donnie Bryan who was not present at the meeting and therefore did not vote.

After a closed session, Miles made a motion to authorize county staff to advertise a separate public hearing for a siting agreement between Apex and the county at the next meeting if a tentative agreement is made between staff and Apex before Oct. 22. District 5 Supervisor Harry Bryant seconded the motion, which passed unanimously with the exception of Bryan.

Supervisors expressed interest in meeting with members of the Louisa County government in order to gain insight on their experiences with the large Belcher Solar project.

On Friday, County Administrator Karl Carter confirmed he and Edmondston were working to get in contact with Louisa officials to discuss the solar project there, adding the Buckingham Board may also choose to contact Louisa supervisors directly.