Planning Commission recommends approval of SUP for solar farm

Planning Commission recommends approval of SUP for solar farm

The Pulaski County Planning Commission voted 4-2 Tuesday night to recommend approval of a Special Use Permit (SUP) to allow construction of a solar farm on over 2,700 acres of farmland in Pulaski County.

The commission’s recommendation now goes to the Board of Supervisors which will ultimately decide whether the SUP is approved, paving the way for the solar farm project to be built.

The supervisors will take up the issue at their monthly meeting set for Jan. 25 at 7 p.m. when it also holds a public hearing in the Little Theatre of Pulaski County High School – where Tuesday night’s commission hearing was held.

Commissioner John Travis, the Board of Supervisors’ representative on the planning commission, offered the motion to recommend approval to the supervisors. His motion was seconded by Commissioner Dr. Doug Warren.

Voting “yes” on the motion were Commissioners David Clark, Warren, Travis and David Dean. Voting against the motion were Commissioner Melanie Lester and Commission Chairman Andy Hall.

Commissioner Al Smith left the meeting during its opening minutes after recusing himself from the discussion and vote for professional reasons.

Following the vote to recommend approval, a second vote was taken and passed on whether the SUP as requested is in “significant accord” with the county’s Comprehensive Plan. The Commission voted 5-1 that it is, with Hall again voting “no.”

During the public hearing, five people spoke in favor of the solar farm proposal, while 17 spoke in opposition.

Elaine Holeton, Planning and Zoning Director for the county, opened discussion and gave a brief outline of the proposed project – noting that staff recommends approval of the SUP request and that it is compatible with the county’s Comprehensive Plan.

Next up was Chris Tuck, an area attorney working on behalf of Hecate Energy Pulaski who is seeking the SUP.

Tuck said Hecate believes the positives of the solar farm proposal “vastly outweigh the negatives.”

He said development of the solar farm and the boost it will give renewable energy in the county will keep “high-tech” jobs here and bring more to the community.

He said the project will be the second largest solar farm in Virginia and the third largest on the East Coast.

Tuck said high-tech companies that are looking for renewable energy will see this is the place to come and that Pulaski County is “looking toward the future.”

Tuck mentioned the 160 construction jobs that will be created by the project but noted that another 190 “ancillary” jobs will also be created. Those jobs, he added, would create approximately $18 million in associated labor income and about $47 million in economic output.

He also said 12 full-time equivalent jobs would be created by the project with annual labor income of some $850,000 and approximately $1.7 million in economic output.

Approximately $735,000 in tax revenue would be generated for the county in the first year as well, Tuck noted.  He said over 25 years tax revenue for the county would be approximately $12 million. All with no impact on county services, he said.

One Pulaski County farmer speaking for the project, Malcolm Booth, noted he has no vested interest in the project. He said to his knowledge no one had said “save that farm” where the new Mack plant is being built next to Volvo on what was once the Joe Hardie farm.

Booth said property rights begin and end at “your property line, no further.”

While he said he understands the concerns of property owners adjacent to the solar project, there is no guarantee the farmland to be used will always stay like it is.

He said the project is economically sound for the landowners, who will lease their land for use by Hecate, and “extremely economically sound for the county.”

He said some say the electricity produced by the farm won’t stay here. “Beef, milk, fiber produced [by farms] here doesn’t stay here,” Booth said. “Why should the electricity be any different.”

Ken Bowling said he was skeptical of the project when it was first introduced in 2019, but that changed in April 2020.

“That’s when our state legislature and governor signed the Clean Economy Act, which in so many words mandates the power companies in Virginia – Dominion Energy and American Electric Power – by 2050 to be 100 percent dependent on sustainable energy sources … onshore wind and sunlight. Those are the two sources the law states that will be used,” Bowling said.

“So, these solar farms are going to be big,” Bowling said, noting Wythe County and Montgomery County have already been approached about solar projects.

Sandy Brunner said the project is a “win, win, win” for the county as well as farmers.

Paul Hendricks said he supports the project “110 percent.”

“Solar is the future,” he exclaimed.

Ben Davidson, speaking in opposition, said there are “hundreds of families who will be devastated by this project.”

He said, “for 2,700 acres [project size] that is a massive use of land with very little return for the county.”

Joe Meek asked the planners to recommend denial of the SUP and said the board of supervisors chairman (Joe Guthrie) has some 400 acres involved in the solar farm project, and he believes Guthrie should recuse himself from discussion and voting.

An opinion from the Pulaski County Commonwealth’s Attorney, however, says Guthrie can participate in discussion of the matter and vote at the supervisors’ meeting Jan. 25.

Several other speakers against the project spoke of how it will change the agricultural character of the land involved.

Sandy Davidson said land involved is zoned agriculture and should be left that way.

“It’s a quality-of-life issue,” she said.

By MIKE WILLIAMS, The Patriot