This week in county government; BOS approves broadband funding, discusses solar development; Supes okay Cooke Rail Park proffer amendment, Bio-Cat rezoning; Electoral Board prepares for early voting
Engage Louisa is a community newsletter aimed at keeping folks informed about Louisa County government. It’s free, non-partisan, and powered by volunteers. We believe our community is stronger and our government serves us better when we increase transparency, accessibility, and engagement.
This week in county government: public meetings, September 13-18
Thursday, September 16
Louisa County Industrial Development Authority, County Administration Building, 1 Woolfolk Ave., 8:30 am. At publication time, an agenda was not publicly available. (public notice)
Additional information about Louisa County’s upcoming public meetings is available here.
Interested in taking your talents to one of the county’s numerous boards and commissions? Find out more here, including which boards have vacancies and how to apply.
Supervisors approve broadband funding
Supervisors took a significant step toward fulfilling their promise to bring universal fiber access to Louisa County by 2025, pledging their support for Firefly’s Regional Internet Service Expansion project (RISE) and committing nearly $9 million to the effort last Tuesday night. (meeting materials, video)
In March, the county announced an initial agreement with Firefly, a subsidiary of Central Virginia Electric Cooperative, Dominion Energy, and Rappahannock Electric Cooperative to deliver county-wide fiber access and the RISE project will serve as a key component of that partnership.
RISE aims to deliver fiber connectivity to thousands of unserved residents in 13 central Virginia localities. Firefly will serve as the internet service provider. In Louisa County, the company will use its own infrastructure as well as infrastructure owned and constructed by Dominion and REC.
On Tuesday, Firefly CEO Gary Wood provided a brief overview of the RISE project including its projected budget for Louisa County. According to Firefly’s latest estimates, there are over 12,000 unserved addresses in the county and just over 10,000 meet the criteria for funding from the Virginia Telecommunications Initiative (VATI), a state program tasked with awarding grants to expand high-speed internet access in rural areas. The company estimates that construction costs for county-wide fiber connectivity will reach $87.5 million with construction in VATI-eligible areas comprising about $75 million of that total.
In addition to the county’s contribution, Firefly, Dominion, and REC will contribute over $47 million to the project. Firefly, in partnership with the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission (TJPDC), is requesting over $18.5 million in VATI funds.
Since RISE is a regional project, TJPDC is acting as lead applicant and grant administrator. Wood told supervisors at their August meeting that the RISE project’s regional approach is expected to help it score higher in VATI’s awards process as the program is particularly focused on funding large regional projects this cycle. The grant application is due September 14 and awards are expected to be announced in December.
During a special session in early August, the General Assembly appropriated $700 million in federal pandemic relief money to expand broadband, drastically increasing VATI resources.
VATI aims to connect “unserved” communities, defined as those who don’t have access to speeds at or exceeding 25 megabits per second for downloads and 3 megabits per second for uploads. Areas that already have access to high-speed internet or previously received VATI money are ineligible to participate in the grant.
Outside of RISE, Firefly has already connected large swaths of western Louisa in CVEC’s service area. The Board of Supervisors provided the company with a $500,000 tax abatement to aid that effort. Federal CARES Act funding has also helped connect residents in the area. Additional federal funds will help cover costs in parts of southern Louisa County.
Where funding will come from for areas that don’t qualify for VATI money and aren't covered by federal funds but include residents who lack access to high-speed internet is unclear. Wood made limited comments about these areas during his presentation.
Since their announcement last March, county officials have maintained that their partnership will deliver county-wide fiber access. Wood reiterated that point Tuesday night.
“We have plans to reach everywhere,” he said.
While supervisors promised matching funds for the RISE project, pending receipt of a VATI grant and the execution of a construction agreement, they haven’t publicly discussed where they’ll get the money.
The county is set to receive about $7.3 million in federal pandemic relief aid courtesy of the American Rescue Plan Act. Half of that money was expected to arrive this spring with the remainder coming next year. According to federal guidelines, the funds can be used to expand broadband infrastructure.
Supervisors discuss future of utility-scale solar development
With its friendly topography, proximity to high-voltage transmission lines, and plentiful land, Louisa County has attracted the attention of utility-scale solar developers eager to cash in on a booming industry.
The county is already home to two utility-scale solar facilities and, over the last year, supervisors green-lighted the construction of three more.
With interest from solar developers unlikely to wane, supervisors discussed how they might address and manage solar projects moving forward. Community Development Director Robert Gardner prepared a memo, at the request of Mineral District Supervisor Duane Adams, that lays out a range of “best practices” implemented in other localities.
The board approved an extensive rewrite of the county’s Land Use Regulations in February, which included amendments that address utility-scale solar projects. But, according to Gardner’s memo, those provisions were the “first step to provide a fixed standard for development.” He notes that currently “no guidelines, policies or ordinances exist which control either suitable locations or numbers of land use amendments necessary for establishing (solar) facilities.”
Gardner’s memo includes six broad suggestions and cites specific ordinances and policies put in place in two Virginia localities. The suggestions include: placing a cap on solar development; limiting how far solar facilities could be located from a transmission line; increasing the distance between solar facilities and other development; requiring that solar facilities are located in close proximity to each other; restricting solar development in conservation districts; and mandating minimum and/or maximum acreage included in solar facilities.
Specifically, Gardner notes that Brunswick County capped the number of total acres that can be considered for utility-scale solar use. Culpeper County capped the number of megawatts such projects can produce. Culpeper also adopted a utility solar development policy that encourages solar facilities to locate on contiguous properties or within a certain distance of an existing solar site.
Assistant County Administrator Jeff Ferrel told supervisors that the county could establish overlay districts where solar is permitted then adopt ordinances and policies that apply to those districts.
Of the five utility-scale solar developments either built or approved in the county, three are in close proximity to one another, clustered between the towns of Louisa and Mineral. Two other projects that the board is expected to consider in the future are also located in that area.
While the board didn't take a deep dive into the memo’s suggestions Tuesday night, several supervisors sounded eager to explore their options, particularly in light of ongoing stormwater runoff and erosion issues at Dominion’s Belcher solar facility off Waldrop Church Road. Runoff from that project has caused significant soil erosion and other damage on nearby farms.
Belcher is ‘poisoning the well’
Mineral District Supervisor Duane Adams and Patrick Henry District Supervisor Fitzgerald Barnes recently visited farms near Belcher and raised concerns about what they saw.
“Mr. Barnes and I saw hay fields with three, four, five inches of sand on them,” Adams said. “We don’t have sand in Louisa County. We have rocks and red clay. The sand is coming from the sandbags that have been put on the project to help with the erosion. The amount of water coming off of that project, the speed it’s coming off, and the amount of land that was cleared for the entire project has created a terrible situation.”
Adams said, in his view, Belcher is “poisoning the well” for future utility-scale solar development.
“I’d like to see the board take a real hard look at where we are going to go with solar and decide when enough is enough because I’ve seen enough with that project,” he said, noting that the “creek erosion, the soil erosion, and the tree damage is pretty catastrophic.”
Barnes said the problems at Belcher have caused him to consider placing a moratorium on solar development.
“I’m at the point where I’m ready to put the “M” word in until we get this squared away. I’m not going to say it tonight. But, we’ve got to do better,” he said.
Stormwater and sediment control issues at Belcher have caught the attention of state regulators. In March, the Department of Environmental Quality fined Dominion over $50,000 for the unauthorized discharge of sediment into streams and wetlands surrounding Harris Creek.
After heavy rains sent significant runoff into Harris Creek’s tributaries in early June, Dominion lobbyist Sarah Marshall formally apologized to the county. At the board’s June 7 meeting, Marshall said that Dominion failed to adequately communicate with residents and the county regarding runoff and sediment control. She detailed a mitigation plan to address the issues and noted that Dominion representatives planned to meet with impacted landowners. In a July 26 letter to neighbors, the company stated that work at the site “will continue to reclaim affected areas with adequate vegetation.”
Barnes and Adams suggested that there’s plenty of blame to go around at Belcher, saying that DEQ hasn’t adequately regulated the project. Ferrel said that DEQ is now on site regularly but “it does take them a little while to get into full correction.” Jackson District Supervisor Toni Williams questioned why Dominion has failed to correct the problems.
“We’ve been talking about this for almost a year and Dominion still doesn’t have it fixed. That just really blows my mind,” he said. “I’m not casting aspersions on them and I’m not saying it’s easy but I know that money is not a barrier for Dominion. They have plenty of it.”
Marshall, the Dominion lobbyist, attended Tuesday’s meeting to address two other items on the agenda but left prior to the discussion of utility scale solar.
‘I hate to see us develop policy on one bad issue and one bad development’
Cuckoo District Supervisor Willie Gentry suggested that nothing in Gardner’s memo would actually address the problems at Belcher and the board is only focused on a single development.
“I hate to see us develop policy on one bad issue and one bad development,” he said.
Gentry added that the recently-approved utility-scale solar project in his district is on land that might otherwise have been used for residential development. During that project’s approval process, some neighbors said they’d prefer solar panels to a subdivision that would bring increased traffic.
Louisa District Supervisor Eric Purcell, whose family has leased hundreds of acres to a solar developer, said he understands the concerns about large-scale solar facilities. But, he argued that not all solar projects are created equal. Done properly, he suggested solar facilities can play a conservation role.
Purcell cited Aura Power’s plans for a roughly 1,400-acre tract owned by he and his father, Charles, which the board approved for an up to 244 MW solar array last year.
“It’s a false dichotomy to say that it’s either going to be a forest or a solar field. That’s not true,” he said, noting that only about 600 of his 1,400 acres will be covered in solar panels. “800 acres will remain in trees for the next 35 to 40 years…otherwise, you are on a 15-year timber rotation cycle where trees are going to be cut and you’ll have erosion issues from that.”
Purcell said he’s alarmed by the issues at Belcher and supports taking measures to ensure they don’t happen again. He also said he’s open to some of the memo’s suggestions.
Williams didn’t offer much insight into what he thinks the county should do about solar development. But, he said the board should make some decisions quickly as other projects are on the horizon.
Aura recently applied for a second Conditional Use Permit to develop a utility-scale solar project on land owned by Eric and Charles Purcell near the Town of Mineral.
In addition, the Louisa County Industrial Development Authority has leased the roughly 800-acre Cooke Industrial Rail Park to a solar developer. The board approved a proffer amendment for the site on Tuesday night that clears the way for the developer to apply for a CUP (see below for more information).
After remaining quiet for much of the discussion, Board Chair Bob Babyok appointed Barnes and Adams to lead a committee to study possible policies and ordinances that the county could put in place to guide and manage utility-scale solar development. He asked that the committee report back to the board at its October 4 meeting.
Supes okay Cooke Rail Park proffer amendment, Bio-Cat rezoning; Board opens door to golf carts on the roads at Blue Ridge Shores
Supervisors breezed through three public hearings Tuesday night, unanimously approving an industrial rezoning for Bio-Cat and a proffer amendment that could open the door to utility-scale solar development at the Cooke Industrial Rail Park. They also gave a thumbs up to golf carts and utility vehicles on public roads in Blue Ridge Shores.
Clearing the way for potential solar development at Cooke Industrial Rail Park: Not long after supervisors agreed to take a closer look at the future of utility-scale solar development, they approved a proffer amendment for the Cooke Industrial Rail Park that clears the way for a developer to request a Conditional Use Permit to construct a large solar array at the site.
The Louisa County Industrial Development Authority owns the 800-acre property, located on the north side of Davis Highway (Route 22) between Chalklevel Road (Route 625) and Chopping Road (Route 623) in the Mineral Voting District, and requested the amendment. The amendment wipes away 10 other proffers currently attached to the property if solar development moves forward.
Last year, the IDA signed a ground lease agreement with Two Oaks Solar LLC allowing the company up to five and a half years to conduct due diligence at the park for the potential construction of a solar site. The lease includes a $45,000 up-front payment to the IDA. If the facility is built, the company would lease the property for $700 an acre annually for the life of the solar array.
A solar facility would still require approval from the Board of Supervisors via the CUP process.
Jackson District Supervisor Toni Williams asked why the IDA was requesting the proffer amendment prior to the developer applying for a CUP. Economic Development Director Andy Wade said that the project’s investors don’t want to spend money on the due diligence required for a CUP application until the proffers are cleared.
The current proffers cover a range of stipulations, some of which are not applicable to the development of a solar facility. One requires that all roads constructed in the park are maintained to VDOT standards. Several others relate to the construction of a wastewater treatment facility.
The IDA purchased the property in 2014. With over a mile of frontage along the railroad, the land was once envisioned as an industrial site served by rail. At the Planning Commission public hearing in August, Wade said he didn't think that was the best use for the park.
The property is zoned industrial and, with the exception of one parcel, designated for industrial use and included in the Mineral Growth Area in the 2040 Comprehensive Plan.
Bio-Cat rezoning at Zion Crossroads: The board green-lighted Mircozyme LLC’s request to rezone 23.43 acres of a 24.585 acre parcel (tmp 52-29) from Commercial (C-2) to Industrial (I-2 GAOD). The property is located southwest of the intersection of Three Notch Road (Route 250) and Poindexter Road (Route 613) in the Patrick Henry Voting District.
Microzyme requested the rezoning to expand the operation of Bio-Cat, a biotechnology company that has operated in the county for more than 30 years. The company has long produced enzymes and since branched out into manufacturing human-grade probiotics via Bio-Cat Microbials. That operation is based in Minnesota
“We’ve hit capacity where we are in Minnesota and been through a full review of where we’d like to build a new facility,” said Bio-Cat Assistant Vice President Stephen Schuler. “We’ve been in Louisa for 30-plus years and we’d love to build in Louisa and stay in Louisa.”
The rezoning will allow the company to add a 30,000-square foot facility for microbial production, drive aisles, and accessory parking. Microzyme is also proposing a third entrance off Route 250.
The company estimates that the expansion will accommodate about 20 additional employees. The rezoning will also provide space for Bio-Cat’s future growth.
Kelsey Schlein, a planner with Shimp Engineering, told supervisors that Microzyme requested a rezoning to I-2 because the new facility will manufacture microbials, which involves a fermentation process. She said there’s a slight chance the facility could produce a brewery-like smell. I-2 zoning in the Growth Area Overlay District allows for medium industry that produces moderate external effects like noise, smoke, and odor.
Schlein presented a proffer statement from the applicant, which excludes a number of uses currently allowed in I-2 zoning. She explained that the proffers are modeled on what is currently prohibited in C-2 zoning, the property’s designation prior to rezoning.
“Unless it was for medium industry, laboratory or research and development use, we omitted or made by conditional use permit any use that didn’t exactly match the C-2 (zoning),” she said.
At the Planning Commission’s public hearing in August, Schlein said that the county’s requirement for a 100-foot buffer around the property, as laid out in new land development regulations, isn’t feasible and that the applicant plans to seek a special exception from the Louisa County Board of Supervisors.
At Tuesday’s meeting, County Planner Tom Egeland said that Community Development Director Robert Gardner is working with the applicant on a site plan that would include 50 foot buffers on the south and east edges of the property and a ten foot buffer on the western edge. He said that Gardner is reviewing screening concepts provided by Shimp Engineering and “will continue to work with the applicant on this matter.”
Golf carts at Blue Ridge Shores: The board quickly approved an amendment to county code that permits the operation of golf carts and utility vehicles, subject to certain terms and conditions, on 26 public highways in Blue Ridge Shores subdivision.
Code already allows the use of golf carts and utility vehicles on public roads in a handful of subdivisions around Lake Anna. In June, the Blue Ridge Shores Property Owners Association sent a letter to Louisa District Supervisor Eric Purcell asking that the board designate the neighborhood a “Golf Cart Community.”
BOS roundup: other news and notes from the September 7 meeting
More news and notes from a busy Board of Supervisors meeting:
Committee formed to explore location for workforce housing: At the request of Patrick Henry District Supervisor Fitzgerald Barnes, Board Chairman Bob Babyok formed a committee to explore and identify a suitable location for the development of workforce housing. He appointed Barnes and Cuckoo District Supervisor Willie Gentry to lead the effort.
To help address the county’s concerns about affordable housing, Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger secured $775,000 in federal funding for Ferncliff Place, a proposed mixed-income affordable housing community that Louisa County hopes to build in partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Greater Charlottesville. The funding is included in a House appropriations package that passed in July and has moved to the Senate for consideration.
According to preliminary plans, the community would include about 80 units with 25 reserved for families making between 25 and 60 percent of the area’s median income, currently $74,500 a year. The remainder of the homes would sell at market rate.
The Ferncliff Place proposal has met resistance from some neighbors who argue that the 13.3-acre county-owned property chosen for the project, near the corner of Route 250 and Mallory Road (tmp 67-2-D), is ill-suited for dense development. Five people spoke in opposition to the project at Tuesday’s meeting. Barnes has acknowledged that the site has some “challenges.”
At the board’s August meeting, Barnes indicated that he wants the committee to study the best location for such a community, noting that a developer might be willing to proffer land for affordable housing. In a phone conversation with Engage Louisa after that meeting, Barnes said that his goal is to fully investigate all possible sites for workforce housing, including county-owned parcels, to ensure the best outcome.
Babyok set no deadline for the committee to report back to the board but it could face a tight timeline as the House appropriations package that includes federal funding for Ferncliff Place moves forward in the Senate.
Board hears presentations from arts center, Chamber of Commerce: The board heard brief presentations from a pair of community organizations: The Louisa Arts Center and the Louisa County Chamber of Commerce.
Karen Welch, Executive Director of the arts center, thanked the board for its continued financial support and presented supervisors with a copy of the organization’s annual report. The report details the center’s programs and impact in the community over the last year and provides financial information. Supervisors allocated $60,000 to support the center in FY21 and FY22.
Welch said that navigating the pandemic has been challenging for the center but it pivoted in its approach to programming and outreach to stay afloat. With large events cancelled for much of the last year, the center shifted to small events particularly focused on youth and rented out portions of its venue to bring in extra income.
She said the center has applied for grant funding from various sources and received federal pandemic relief aid through the Shuttered Venues Operators program.
The center has also focused on bringing art to the community, Welch said, noting that Louisa County High School students are helping retrofit fit a donated school bus that will serve as a mobile arts center.
“We are not an ivory tower in the center of Lousia. I want to bring art out in the community as well as bring people into the center,” she said.
Welch told the board that the center is planning for a full season in the Cooke-Haley theater in the coming year while adhering to Covid-19 safety protocols. Click here for more information about upcoming events.
The Chamber of Commerce is also busy. Board Chair Bo Bundrick, Vice Chair Sarah Marshall, and member Casey Hollins told the board that the group is planning a number of events and programs. Bundrick said the chamber recently received a $20,000 matching grant from the Virginia Tourism Corporation’s Recovery Marketing Leverage Program. The grant will help develop and promote a “Fermentation Farm Trail.”
The chamber has also applied for a state “resurgence” grant to fund its “Lift Louisa” program aimed at helping local businesses recover from the pandemic and sustain their success into the future.
Hollins said she is spearheading the chamber’s “Leadership Louisa” committee, which plans to help grow and develop local leaders.
Sale of 32 acres adjoining Reedy Creek approved: Supervisors approved the sale of 32 acres of county-owned land adjoining Reedy Creek subdivision (67-28A). After issuing a Notice of Solicitation in early August, the county received three offers on the R-2-zoned property and authorized its sale to the highest bidder for $120,000. Proceeds from the sale will go to the county’s general fund. The name of the top bidder wasn’t disclosed Tuesday night.
The wooded parcel, which abuts Carter Lane and is accessed via Flint Place, is assessed at $113,800 according to county records.
Though it’s not part of Reedy Creek subdivision, County Attorney Helen Phillips said at a previous board meeting that the property is subject to Reedy Creek’s restrictive covenants.
Reedy Creek’s developer, Charles Purcell, gifted the property to the county when developing the subdivision. It was once considered as a location for an elementary school but the school was instead built along Courthouse Road (Route 208).
Thumbs up for purchase of ladder truck: The board green-lighted the purchase of a $425,000 used ladder truck for Louisa County Fire and EMS. Funds for the purchase will be drawn from the FY21 Fire Trucks/Equipment Capital Project and FY22 Rescue Apparatus Capital Project.
The approved resolution states that the ladder truck currently in use at Zion Crossroads was purchased in 2017 as a stop gap measure. The department has struggled to keep the truck in service, in part, because its manufacturer went out of business making replacement parts difficult to obtain.
The resolution notes that a ladder truck is especially needed in the Zion area because there are a number of large commercial buildings that, in the event of fire, would require large, elevated volumes of water applied with master streams. In addition, the area has both single and multi-family dwellings that are higher than the reach of the 24-foot portable ladders carried on many fire engines.
Two alternates appointed to BZA: The Board of Zoning Appeals, a seven-member body that hears challenges to county zoning rulings, has struggled to get all its members to recent meetings. In response, supervisors appointed two alternates to fill in in the absence of regular appointees.
The board chose Ed Kube, a Mineral District resident, and Gerald Bowles, a Mountain Road District resident, to serve as alternates. Both appointments are subject to approval by Louisa County Circuit Court.
TJPDC discusses regional legislative priorities: Dominique Lavorata, a planner and legislative aide with the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission, summarized the organization’s draft legislative priorities for the coming year.
TJPDC is a regional planning body that serves local governments in Louisa, Fluvanna, Nelson, Greene, and Albemarle counties as well as the City of Charlottesville.
Broadly, the commission’s legislative priorities include: supporting action at the federal, state, and local levels to protect communities and to ensure their viability in the face of the COVID-19 health emergency; urging the governor and legislature to enhance state aid to localities and public schools, to not impose mandates on or shift costs to localities, and to enhance local revenue; and encouraging and supporting state and federal efforts and financial incentives that assist localities and their communities in deploying universal, affordable access to broadband.
Lavorata also provided a quick overview of the state budget, noting that the commonwealth had a record surplus in FY21 and budget forecasts are rosy for FY22.
Mineral District Supervisor Duane Adams zeroed in on the budget surplus. He told Lavorata that, given the state’s influx of cash, he’d like to see the commission push back against “unfunded mandates.”
“If (the state’s) going to mandate something, send us the money. If you aren’t going to fund it, leave us the hell alone,” he said.
Electoral Board discusses early voting hours
Last Thursday, the Louisa County Electoral Board held its final meeting before the kick off of the early voting period and the county’s early voting hours were a subject of some debate.
The General Assembly passed legislation this spring to allow localities to add Sunday voting but did not mandate it. Board Chair Curtis Haymore suggested that Louisa offer the option on one Sunday in October. Secretary David Koegle argued that voters already have plenty of time to cast a ballot during the 45-day early voting period, which starts on Friday, September 17 and runs through Saturday, October 30.
Haymore moved to open for voting on a Sunday afternoon in late October but Koegle declined to second the motion. Vice Chair Jeanne Wolf was absent.
With Haymore’s motion failing, the board ended up sticking with the early voting hours it tentatively adopted at its August meeting. The board could revisit the Sunday voting issue at its October meeting with all three members present.
As of now, the county’s early voting hours are:
Friday, September 17 through Saturday, October 30
Monday through Friday, 8:30 am to 4:30 pm (Closed Monday, October 11, in observance of Columbus Day)
Wednesday, October 20 and Wednesday, October 27, 8:30 am to 7:00 pm
Saturday, October 23 and Saturday, October 30, 9 am to 5 pm
Early voting location: Louisa County Administration Building, 1 Woolfolk Ave., Louisa
In addition to casting ballots early and in person, voters can apply to vote by mail. County Registrar Cris Watkins said her office has received 628 applications for mail-in absentee ballots so far compared to 2,800 at this time last year. Absentee ballots may be returned by mail, dropped in a dropbox at the County Office Building or deposited in a drop bag at a local polling place on Election Day.
Election Day is Tuesday, November 2. Polls are open from 6 am to 7 pm.
Click here for contact information for the Louisa County Board of Supervisors.
Find agendas and minutes from previous meetings as well as archived recordings here.
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