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County has more work to do before approving solar projects

To The Editor:

While I am in support generally for new technologies for a more sustainable future for our great nation, Lunenburg County has work to do before a decision should be made on either the Victoria or the Red Brick solar projects.

While the comprehensive plan has a small section on solar, the county needs to develop a complete and defensible ordinance specific to solar facilities before any official vote on either project–in other words let’s put the horse before the cart.

The current Lunenburg/Kenbridge/Victoria Joint Comprehensive Plan 2019-2024 only covers solar in the Executive Summary and in a few paragraphs in Special Policy Areas–none of which fully address the long-term needs to protect the environment, land use, view sheds, design regulations or other requirements to ensure the county is not creating issues for the short and long term.

When I review the Code of Lunenburg County, I find no current regulations for solar facilities except as noted in Sec. 5-39. – Exceptions to height regulations, where height regulations set forth in this ordinance shall not apply to solar energy equipment.

Considering the attraction by the declining cost of solar power, state incentives and strong corporate interest in purchasing renewable energy, developers are proposing utility-scale solar projects at an increasing rate across Virginia, especially in rural areas such as Lunenburg. Because land prices tend to be much more cost effective in rural localities, and because areas located close to high-voltage electrical transmission lines creates significant cost savings to the industry. While utility scale solar aligns with sustainability goals and decreases carbon dioxide emissions, it must bring overall value to Lunenburg County beyond the clean energy label, tax revenue and limited full-time jobs after construction. Landowners and tax payers of Lunenburg County must weigh its impact on our rural community, natural environment, and local economy.

A comprehensive ordinance on solar farms would cover the following issues:

• A primary impact of utility-scale solar is the removal of forest and or agricultural land from active use. Solar facilities should not be sited on prime agricultural and forest land (as identified by the USDA or by state agencies) and ecological sensitive lands (e.g., riparian buffers, critical habitats, hardwood forests). The least productive land should be used first to minimize the loss of productive agricultural/forested land.

• The visual impact of utility-scale solar facilities can and should be minimized with effective screening and buffering. This requires updates to the county ordinances. Therefore, the use of berms, native evergreens/shrubs and deciduous species should be required.

• Substantial buffers can act as wildlife corridors. The arrangement of panels within a project site is also important to maintain areas conducive to wildlife travel through the site.

• The demand for acreage and the scale of use of solar is intense. The likelihood is that pressure will be ongoing for additional acreage in rural counties. The long-term impact of multiple approvals would transform our land use in large areas of our county. The county should be thinking about limiting the potential explosion of this change to land use and its long-term impacts–that are often irreversible.

• Mass grading, coupled with the removal of agricultural and forested land, will result in detrimental storm water runoff and pollution, if not properly handled.

• Considering the history of Lunenburg County, applicants should be required to conduct a Phase I Archeological Study on the areas of planned disturbance prior to any construction or grading.

• Decommissioning Plan and Waste – how will waste—specifically aging solar panels that need to be removed– be handled from these facilities? The ordinance should address this in detail.

• Other topics that should be explored by an ordinance should include but not limited to a site plan, setbacks, height restrictions (contrary to current Sec. 5-39), fencing, noise, glare, lighting, and maintenance.

In closing utility scale solar projects in Lunenburg County should not come at the expense of our prime agricultural and forested areas. Nor should it adversely impact our environmentally sensitive, scenic, and historical resources. It should bring overall value to Lunenburg County beyond the clean energy label and minimize its impact on our rural community, natural environment, and local economy. If we can create an ordinance that ensures these items noted above, then solar can be a good thing for Lunenburg County and allow diverse tax base for the county to grow and prosper from.

Brooks Gould