PULASKI — Hecate Energy is one step closer to building a 2,700-acre solar farm on agricultural land in Pulaski County after the planning commission voted in favor of the proposed project.
On a 4-2 vote Tuesday night in front of approximately 100 residents, the commission recommended the county Board of Supervisors approve the special use permit the Chicago-based renewable energy company needs to move forward with one of the state’s biggest solar farm projects on land that is currently zoned for agricultural use.
The permit would allow local landowners to lease several pieces of land to build the solar farm Hecate officials say would generate up to 280 megawatts of renewable energy, enough to power approximately 57,000 homes.
Multiple residents — some who plan to lease their land — spoke to the commission in favor of the project, with many saying this was a life-changing opportunity that would allow farmers to keep their land for generations to come.
“I do not see this as destruction of county farmland. I see it as preservation,” Malcom Boothe said, while noting he doesn’t have a vested interest in the project.
Boothe, who is the president of the New River Valley Fairgrounds in Dublin and a lifelong farmer himself, said this is an “economically sound” decision for both the county and the farmers, who will now have “a chance at retirement.”
He also took exception with opponents of the project having a say over what an individual does with their land.
“Property rights begin and end at your property line, no further,” he said.
Sandra Brunner, who spoke on behalf of her family that owns Bunn Farms, echoed many of Boothe’s sentiments, particularly that farming is not always the most lucrative business.
“Most farmers die working, because the can’t afford to retire,” she told the commission.
Brunner also addressed the complaints many citizens have expressed about the eyesore and viewshed problems that would come with living next to fields of solar panels, stating the alternative would likely be many landowners selling their property to developers interested in building subdivisions.
“This project allows my family to keep their land and continue farming on it,” she said.
Hecate already has 20 or so landowners interested in signing 35-year leases, the expected life of the project, according to the company’s application to the county.
Opponents who spoke against the project continued to largely talk about the viewshed problems the solar farms would cause, and how it would be a huge hit to the agricultural industry in the county.
The 2,700 acres accounts for approximately 1.7% of the county’s land that can be used for agricultural purposes, according to figures from the county’s GIS system.
Joe Meek, a founder of the Save Pulaski Farms Facebook page, told the commission the land should remain for agricultural use, and solar farms do not meet that definition.
He also said the land would be ruined for farming forever, despite Hecate writing in its application that it’s required to return the land to as close to its original state as possible following the duration of the project.
Meek is also the owner of the Pulaski Livestock Market in Dublin and Kent Farm, where he lives and works. He said his property overlooks land where part of the project would be sited, and has concerns about his property value decreasing being surrounded by solar panels.
“Landowners have a right to do what they want on their property until it affects their neighbors,” he said.
Local attorney and former member of the Montgomery County Board of Supervisors, Chris Tuck, is representing Hecate on the project.
He told the commission the project fits within the county’s comprehensive plan, and the solar panels, which would be installed near the New River Valley Airport and the NRV Commerce Park, would be instrumental in drawing high-tech companies and data centers to the region, as many of those companies prefer renewable energy sources.
Tuck also addressed concerns about decreasing property value, saying that other parts of the country where solar farms have been built have not seen a dramatic change in value for adjacent properties.
Hecate officials said if the supervisors approve the plan at its Jan. 25 meeting, the next step with be working with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality to make sure everything in the project meets state guidelines.
Tuck said the current timeline has Hecate breaking ground in August, with construction taking roughly 12 months to complete.
“That is the timeline we have right now, but there are always variables like weather that can push that back,” he told the commission.
The two commission members to vote against the project were Chair Andy Hall and Melanie Lester, both declining to comment on their decisions after the meeting.
Supervisors will meet at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 25 at the Pulaski High School auditorium to hold another public hearing and to likely vote on the permit, including Chair Joe Guthrie, who has a vested interest in the project.
He’s said he is looking to lease roughly half of his family’s 460 acres of land for the project.
Guthrie declared that interest during a project informational meeting in December, and an opinion from county Commonwealth’s Attorney Justin Griffith states that Guthrie voting or discussing the project as a board member is lawful as long as he divulges his personal interest in the project and the project includes three or more parties.