WINCHESTER — A conditional-use permit for a $100 million solar power facility in southern Frederick County was approved unanimously by the Board of Supervisors on Wednesday night.
The approval clears the way for Boulder, Colorado-based Torch Clean Energy to develop the facility, which is referred to as the Bartonsville facility, on approximately 1,160 acres in a largely rural area along Passage Road (Route 648), Marlboro Road (Route 631), Springdale Road (Route 649), Middle Road (Route 628), and west of the CSX rail corridor and partially within the Stephens City town limits.
Rows of ground-mounted solar panels will be installed on about 705 acres of the site, accompanied by other necessary equipment, a transmission substation, access paths, fencing and landscaping.
Sam Gulland, a development manager with Torch Clean Energy, said construction is slated to begin in the second half of 2021. The facility will take six to nine months to build. Once completed, it will generate more than 180,000 megawatts hours of solar energy during its first year of operation — enough to power about 15,000 homes in Virginia.
The project’s location appealed to Torch Clean Energy because it is near an existing First Energy 138 kilovolt transmission line, where the solar energy will be delivered.
This is the second large-scale solar power facility to be approved in the county. In July, the supervisors OK’d a conditional-use permit for Richmond-based Urban Grid, representing Foxglove Solar LLC of Stevensville, Maryland, to develop a $101 million facility on about 670 acres in the vicinity of Hites, Marlboro, Klines Mill, Clark and Vaucluse roads, also in the southern part of the county. It will generate enough energy to power 11,500 homes.
During a public hearing on Wednesday night, several residents who live near the area slated for the Bartonsville facility expressed concerns about noise levels, particularly during the project’s construction, as well as the impact the solar installation will have on their views.
Gainesboro District Supervisor J. Douglas McCarthy called the decision to approve the project “difficult.”
“Primarily not because I think the project itself has any inherent flaws, but because there are so many neighbors who have concerns,” McCarthy said. “One thing I will say is that a lot of their concerns that were brought forth to us either in email or tonight during the public hearing seem to have been addressed to a great extent by some mitigating activity that the organization says [it] will take.”
While he empathized with neighboring property owners, McCarthy said he believes the facility will be good for the county because it will keep agricultural land from being turned into a housing development.
About 360 acres of the property is platted for 64 rural residential subdivision lots from the undeveloped Springdale Glen and Carrollton Estates subdivisions.
As a condition of the permit, Torch Clean Energy must vacate the lots prior to site plan approval, and no new residential lots can be subdivided while solar facilities are on the property.
McCarthy confirmed with county planner Mark Cheran during the meeting that, if the lots were subdivided, hundreds of houses could be built there.
“Eventually the day will come when we need to rely on local farmers for our food and not farmers in China or South America,” McCarthy said. “And to me, that’s a great concern because over my short 44 years on this planet, I’ve seen farmland in this county be gobbled up and turned into housing developments and turned into industrial developments.”
Back Creek District Supervisor Shawn Graber said the concerns expressed by residents made approving the permit “the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make.”
But Graber said Torch Clean Energy has made efforts to “be a good neighbor” and that the permit’s conditions heavily mitigate the impact of the project.
The permit calls for buffers and screening around the perimeter of the property. At Graber’s request, a condition was added saying that plantings be installed at the first optimal growing season after the project has begun. Another condition was added at the request of the board, saying that herbicides should not be the primary weed control method on the property.
Also, pile-driving of poles for solar arrays during construction will be limited to 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays. At the request of the board, Torch Clean Energy must give nearby landowners two-weeks notice prior to pile driving. All other construction activities are permitted 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays and 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays. No construction activities will be allowed on Sundays. Red Bud District Supervisor Blaine Dunn requested that no construction will be allowed on holidays either.
The project’s inverters must be at least 450 feet from all adjacent residences, per the permit.
Also at the meeting, the board:
Amended a zoning ordinance to expand the definition of “day care facility” to include “adult care.” The amendment was requested by a local engineering firm working with Shenandoah Valley Westminster-Canterbury to allow this use in Residential Performance District. Under the previous definition, day care facilities only included child care. Day care facilities are currently allowed with an approved CUP in the county’s Rural Areas and Residential Performance zoning districts.
Approved a conditional-use permit for an auto repair garage at 5115 Cedar Creek Grade. All repair-related activities must occur entirely within an enclosed structure, and no more than five vehicles awaiting repair will be allowed on site at any time. Hours of operation will be from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekdays, 8 a.m. to noon on Saturdays and closed Sundays.