Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Solar farm proposed for Hill Pleasant Farm gains feedback

James City County's first large-scale solar farm was approved by the Board of Supervisors Tuesday. (WYDaily/Courtesy of SunPower).
James City County’s first large-scale solar farm was approved by the Board of Supervisors in January 2018. While that one’s future is uncertain, another one has been proposed for Hill Pleasant Farm. (WYDaily/Courtesy of SunPower).

A 20-megawatt solar farm proposed for a former farm property off Richmond Road was under the microscope Wednesday, revealing more details about the project and the solar experts behind it.

Solar farm developer Strata Solar LLC and their attorney from Kaufman and Canoles law firm attended the James City County Development Review Committee meeting Wednesday, looking for feedback and suggestions on their proposed solar farm project. 

Strata Solar has proposed a 20-megawatt solar farm for Hill Pleasant Farm, which would be nestled between Rochambeau Drive and Route 60. The project would include solar farm panels and possibly a battery storage facility, but would not need a substation because it can tap into the existing electrical infrastructure.

“We felt it was prudent, given the pending special use permit application… to hear questions or concerns,” said Adam Pratt, a Kaufman and Canoles attorney representing Strata Solar.

The solar farm does not require approval from the Development Review Committee before the Planning Commission votes whether to recommend approval of the project to the Board of Supervisors — Strata Solar was simply at Wednesday’s meeting to gain feedback on their project.

The Development Review Committee is a subcommittee of the Planning Commission and is comprised of four commissioners. While much of the four-member body did not voice support or opposition to the project in particular, one member, Danny Schmidt, said he thought solar was a good use for the area, as other development proposals for housing and businesses are likely to increase in that area in the coming years.

“It seems so logical and simple,” Schmidt said. “I know we’re outside the primary service area right now [with this project], but all those areas will be under the gun for homes at some point… It’s a win-win for the community and environment.”

North Carolina-based Strata Solar has been slowly increasing its presence in Virginia in the past year or so.

Strata Solar Development Manager Ben Vollmer said the company recently finished a solar farm project in New Kent. The Strata website indicated the 22.5-megawatt farm, called “Correctional Solar Farm” was finished recently for Amazon Web Services.

Another Strata Solar project is also underway in Surry County.

Vollmer added the company is in talks with a utility provider, but has not reached an agreement.

“We’re in commercial talks but nothing is finalized,” Vollmer said. “Before we start construction, we’d have a buyer.”

Getting approved

For the project to come to fruition, the Board of Supervisors would need to approve two things: a special use permit for the project and permission to remove part of the parcel from the agricultural and forestal district. 

Being in an agricultural and forestal district gives the landowner a lower tax assessment — and therefore saves them money on annual taxes — if the property is used for farming or forestry.

Planner Tom Leininger said about 192 of 391 acres would be removed from the district if the Board of Supervisors approves the issue.

Development Review Committee Chairman Frank Polster questioned why only part of the parcel would be removed from the district if it’s no longer being used for farming.

The parcel is zoned A1 agricultural, but James City County’s Comprehensive Plan designates the parcel as “economic opportunity.”

The project proposal will be heard at a future James City County Planning Commission meeting.

If approved

If the project is approved, construction would take about a year. From there, the lifespan of the solar farm would be 30 years with two opportunities for five-year extensions, Pratt said.

Pratt said the project would not have a negative fiscal impact on the county. The project won’t generate the need for additional emergency services 

The project won’t have much of a visual impact, Strata representatives said. The solar farm would be surrounded by a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire, but would also have a vegetative buffer so the fence is concealed. A hill along Richmond Road would also prevent passersby from seeing the solar panels.

After the project is built, it will require only one or two vehicle trips per month to maintain, meaning there will be very little traffic impact.

Some committee members Wednesday asked whether there was a possibility the landowner could break the lease with Strata and remove the panels earlier than expected. Strata representatives indicated that would be an unusual request and likely not possible.

And another question: What if Strata Solar folds? 

Vollmer told the Development Review Committee they have previously hired independent engineers to estimate the salvage value of the solar equipment versus its decommission costs.

Those consultants have found the landowner would still profit from the materials used to build the solar farm. 

Norge farm

Although the subject of the meeting was the farm at Hill Pleasant, another mysterious, previously-approved project was also mentioned.

SunPower Devco LLC got approval to build a 20-megawatt solar farm behind the Norvalia subdivision in January 2018.

More than a year after its approval, the developer still had not filed site plans, the planning department confirmed in February.

The project was mentioned only in passing at Wednesday’s meeting, but at one point it was described by a committee member using a bleak phrase: “Ill-fated.”

Sarah Fearing
Sarah Fearing
Sarah Fearing is the Assistant Editor at WYDaily. Sarah was born in the state of Maine, grew up along the coast, and attended college at the University of Maine at Orono. Sarah left Maine in October 2015 when she was offered a job at a newspaper in West Point, Va. Courts, crime, public safety and civil rights are among Sarah’s favorite topics to cover. She currently covers those topics in Williamsburg, James City County and York County. Sarah has been recognized by other news organizations, state agencies and civic groups for her coverage of a failing fire-rescue system, an aging agriculture industry and lack of oversight in horse rescue groups. In her free time, Sarah enjoys lazing around with her two cats, Salazar and Ruth, drinking copious amounts of coffee and driving places in her white truck.

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