PINEY RIVER — The largest commercial solar farm proposed to date in Amherst County in the Piney River area received a denial vote from the county’s planning commission on March 16.
Members said the decision largely was based on environmental concerns with the site’s history and impacts to scenic views.
The commission’s unanimous recommendation the Amherst County Board of Supervisors deny the project followed a public hearing eight area residents, including from Nelson County, spoke with most voicing concerns with the project’s unknowns and impacts on the viewshed. Several spoke on their concerns about the visibility of a major solar farm in close proximity to the Virginia Blue Ridge Railway Trail.
Piney River Solar, LLC, a subsidiary of Energix US, LLC, a company with its U.S. headquarters in Arlington, seeks a special exception permit application to operate the utility-scale solar farm on roughly 170 acres with a larger 431-acre tract located on Virginia 151 and Roses Mill Road close to the Nelson County border.
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The land is zoned Agricultural Residential (A-1) and if approved would be the county’s third commercial solar project given clearance in the past two years.
The project’s greater property has a brownfield site associated with the former U.S. Titanium mining operation in Piney River. The parcels being proposed for solar arrays previously were used as a tailing storage area, a byproduct of mining, in connection with the mining operation that spanned several parcels in both Amherst and Nelson counties.
Under the Piney River Solar proposal, the site, on which a large amount of solid waste in violation of Amherst County regulations currently is located, would see a greater, larger brownfield site with current historic difficulties brought fully into compliance with local ordinances and would be part of a cleaner environment for the county’s future, according to documents in the application.
Shawn Hershberger, project developer for Energix, said the company’s presence would answer unknowns on the overall property and improve it, but commissioners voiced aesthetic and environmental concerns.
“We don’t know what’s there. Do we really start unearthing something that is going to be a big problem?” Commissioner Michael Martineau said, adding: “It’s a tough situation. Personally, I’m leaning toward I’m not willing to risk any environmental issues from this project.”
Historically, the U.S. Titanium mined titanium ore and aplite on a nearby site between 1931 and 1971 before moving it to the northern bank of the Piney River for chemical treatment, according to documents attached with the permit application.
“Mining operations left processing wastes in tailings ponds across the project area and northern adjoining properties,” an excerpt from those documents read. “The resulting heavy metals contributed to six major fish kills between 1977 and 1981 in the Piney River and other environmental issues. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency still regularly monitors the area. This utility-scale solar project will revitalize previously disturbed land with limited future uses into a net-positive project for the community.”
The project is planned as a fixed-tilt-mounted system with solar panel structures placed in a permanent location and not exceeding 15 feet in height, according to the application. Plans call for it to interconnect with a nearby substation.
Tyler Creasy, co-director of community development for the county, said a 30-foot vegetative buffer is planned for the project.
The Piney River Solar Project has capacity for 50 megawatts, enough to power 8,430 homes annually, and will generate no pollution, noise or traffic and place no strain on existing infrastructure in the county, according to Hershberger.
“We have taken extensive efforts to make sure that from nearly a 360-degree viewshed this will have limited to no impacts on neighbors and where there is a potential impact we offer up a way to mitigate those impacts,” Hershberger said.
The project will generate more than $7.5 million in estimated revenue over its 45-year lifespan, Hershberger said.
The county’s comprehensive plan for growth and development promotes solar generation facilities that are located in areas that do not have a negative impact on adjoining property or county residents and seeks to preserve and maintain the county’s unique and natural features.
“That’s something that I would say is important to us as a county, our viewsheds from the higher mountains,” Amherst County Board of Supervisors member David Pugh, who also sits on the planning commission, said during Hershberger’s presentation. “We made clear that through the comprehensive plan. Most likely you will be able to see [the proposed project] from elevated areas in the western part of the county.”
Commissioner Michael Bryant added some nearby Nelson County residents would be looking down on the solar facility.
Roseland resident Mark Campbell said he has a farm on the Piney River and is opposed to the project based on environmental and water quality concerns.
“This area isn’t exactly flat,” Campbell said. “My concern is the water quality of the Piney River. That’s a lot of impervious surface. There’s going to be a lot of runoff.”
James Bibb, of Arrington, said he feels the proposal is a concern for Nelson and Amherst residents alike and urged county officials to listen to constituents.
“I’m supportive of the right of individuals and businesses and industry to install renewable energy solutions on their property to offset their own energy consumption,” Bibb said. “I am not in favor of development of vast, rural farms and forest to place large-scale fenced solar installations in the name of green energy.”
Amherst resident Geri Dokos owns more than 200 acres next to the project and said she is concerned with its impact as an electrical generator.
“I can already hear the substation, and I have an Airbnb on my property, and I plan to renovate my barn to do weddings and events,” Dokos said. “...A lot of trees will be removed and it will be a true eyesore, in my opinion.”
Commission Chair Leslie Gamble said the vistas and views of the county belong to all residents and she feels the project would “defile, destroy and deface” the natural beauty the county is committed to protecting.
“A solar farm of this size is a major industrial manufacturing and production facility that has nothing to do with agriculture,” Gamble said.
Commissioner Derin Foor said the views along the gateway into the county on Virginia 151 should be protected. He feels the county would have a limited advantage financially from the project and he’s heard from residents who live close to similar projects who say they see no advantage to having it in their backyards.
He also shared concerns with “the great unknown” of potential contaminants in the ground. “There’s a lot of land that gets dug up,” Foor said. “You’re disturbing all that land that already has a big question mark on it.”