A 1,700-acre solar panel project — Walnut Solar — may be on its way to King and Queen County.
Texas-based renewable energy company Open Road Renewables hopes to place solar panels on 1,200 of the 1,700 acres behind the right side of Route 33 and along parts of Route 14 — Buena Vista Road — toward Gloucester, according to the company’s conditional use permit application.
The exact number, type and size of solar panels is undecided, as the company is in the midst of an interconnection study, according to Open Road Renewables director of development Patrick Buckley.
The county received a conditional-use permit application from the company on Sept. 4, and the planning department and environmental codes compliance office are conducting preliminary planning and research on the project, according to the application and county administrator Thomas Swartzwelder.
Open Road Renewable will work through the preliminary planning and permitting process, then sell the project to a vendor, such as Dominion Energy, which would then sell the power.
The map of the proposed site has the solar panels spread out from as far east as Pear Tree Avenue, west almost to York River Road and as far south as Taylorsville Road.
Open Road Renewables has entered into long-term lease agreements with 12 property owners, according to county documents. Buckley said the company cannot discuss the terms of those leases due to confidentiality provisions and out of respect for the landowners.
The company has worked with adjoining property owners to address their concerns about the project during the past year, according to Buckley.
One of those property owner is Jim Lesofsky, who said he worries about the aesthetics of the area and the view of the solar panels directly off his 10-acre property.
Robert Bland IV, a resident in a long-term land lease agreement with the company, said he sees solar panels as the cleanest, most effective way to produce energy.
The project is still in the development and planning stage, and there is no confirmed construction schedule, according to Buckley.
“The earliest that the project could begin construction is … later this year,” Buckley said. The estimated cost of the project depends on its final size, but we estimate the local investment will be $130 million.”
Project and Open Road Renewables
The panels would produce 149.9 megawatts of power per megawatt hour, enough to power more than 20,000 homes for a year, according to Buckley.
The project would take between eight and 10 months to build, and each section of panels would have a fence around it, according to the conditional-use permit application. The panel arrays would also be set back 100 feet from neighboring properties, homes and roads.
The panels would be as high as 12 feet, and there is a landscape plan for vegetation and trees to go around the panels.
The amount of power the site will produce will require another power transfer substation in addition to the Dominion station already located off Buena Vista Road. Both substations are in the site plan, and the new substation would be built along with the solar arrays, according to Buckley.
Buckley said the company discovered King and Queen County and the land included in the proposal after a transmission study that began in 2016.
“We came to King and Queen County primarily because our studies indicated that the electric transmission system in the county could accommodate a new source of power,” Buckley said. “Additionally, the land in the area of the project is well-suited for solar panels and we also found the area land owners to be very interested in partnering with us.”
The ground will have native turf grass to preserve the soil, prevent erosion and improve water quality, according to the application.
The company has done screening and field work to ensure the project will have minimal impact on the environment and wildlife, according to Buckley.
“Most of the land that the solar panels will occupy is currently being farmed, so it is disturbed annually and various herbicides and pesticides are applied,” Buckley said. “While hosting the solar panels, the land will receive a much-needed rest and will have a native turf grass, which will create new habitat for birds and insects and reduce runoff in the area.”
After 40 years, when the solar panels are deemed to be at the end of their lives, the panels will be removed.
Getting to construction
The county is reviewing the preliminary site plan and the conditional-use permit, according to Swartzwelder.
“They’ve told us that the reason that they are doing a preliminary process instead of finalized process is that when they sell it to somebody, they will decide what it ultimately will be and look like,” Swartzwelder said. “They would come in with their final site plan at that point.”
If the preliminary site plan is approved it will go to the Planning Commission for review and a public hearing. If approved by the Planning Commission, it will go to the Board of Supervisors for additional review and a public hearing, according to Swartzwelder.
The project proposal would have to go through multiple agencies, including the county Health Department and Virginia Department of Transportation for local approval.
If approved locally, it would then go through the state permit process by the Department of Environmental Quality, with an additional stormwater permit process if a state permit is granted, according to Buckley.
The final site plan would include plans for traffic, landscaping, erosion and sediment control and decommissioning for the panels, according to the application.
Open Road Renewables has projects in Texas, Georgia and Maryland and was recently granted a 120-megawatt solar panel project in Pittsylvania County, according to Buckley.
The company had an economic study done by Mangum Economics to project its investments in the county, with a total of $130 million in investments.
During the construction period, state and county revenue would see a “pulse” of $399,914.
The construction period would create 110 full-time jobs, $4.6 million in labor income and $13.4 million in economic output revenue, according to the study.
The panels would create $64,101 in net county revenue during the first year of operation; that would decline to $7,122 in the 40th year as the equipment depreciates.
After Open Road Renewables sells the project to a vendor, the new owner would have to pay a machinery and tools tax in the county, according to state code.
Citizen, county input
Lesofsky and his wife Sandra have lived in their home off of Buena Vista Road since 1980. It’s also known as Old School Farm, as the house built in 1884 was part of the county’s historic Buena Vista Academy, according to Lesofsky.
He farmed part of his 10-acre property until three years ago, when he decided to retire.
Lesofsky received a letter from Open Road Renewables on Sept. 17, 2018, and he and several other residents met in January to discuss their concerns.
“There are about 20 or more properties near me that will be adjoining the project and be affected,” Lesofsky said. “Patrick (Buckley) and representatives from Timmons Group came to one of our meetings to discuss our concerns and it was relatively low-key, but some people did get upset.”
Lesofsky said the group of residents plans to meet again in April, and his main concern is the aesthetic of the project and the possible impact on wildlife.
“It changes the aesthetic, our view,” he said. “Personally, as a farmer, I have a special attachment to the land. We like to watch the wildlife as well. Where is the wildlife going to go? There’s no food or cover in those areas.”
Lesofsky said that no matter what Buckley and the company do, he will not be happy with the project proposal.
On the other hand, Bland said it was a hard decision to enter into the lease with the company.
Bland, a farmer, lives about a mile away from the land under lease off of Buena Vista Road; he uses that land for farming.
“There is an abandoned building and one small building we’d have to move,” he said. “Giving up farmland was a difficult decision, especially since farming has been in my family since my grandfather. However, with today’s world and economics, sometimes you have to make the best decision for you.”
Bland declined to provide any information about the land lease.
Open Road Renewables has gone out of its way to address the concerns of those opposed to the proposal, such as proposing to place landscaping and trees around the fencing of the panels, according to Bland.
“I feel like their concerns on visibility have been addressed, so I don’t necessarily understand the opposition to it now.”
Swartzwelder said the county, too, is concerned about the possible environmental impact.
“We are just making sure we have the right pieces in place to protect the environment, viewshed, watersheds, development corridors — all of those issues that are important in the comprehensive plan,” Swartzwelder said. “We are looking at all of the conditions and are asking plenty of questions.”
Buckley said Open Road Renewables would continue to be proactive in their outreach efforts and looks forward to bringing King and Queen County a significant amount of clean energy.
Luck can be reached at 757-291-2038, email@example.com or @ashleyrluck on Twitter