This week in county government; SCC rejects company's request to build pipeline without approval; Supes discuss future of utility-scale solar development, okay purchase of office building; BOS roundup
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, Dec. 27 through Jan. 1
Tuesday, December 28
Update: This meeting has been POSTPONED UNTIL JAN. 19
Louisa County Electoral Board, Executive Board Room, County Administration Building, 1 Woolfolk Ave., Louisa. 10 am. The public may attend in person or call in at 967-4565. (agenda)
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.
State Corporation Commission rejects Chickahominy’s request to build pipeline without its approval
A proposed 83-mile fracked gas pipeline that could cut across five central and eastern Virginia counties including Louisa can’t be constructed without State Corporation Commission approval, the SCC announced Wednesday afternoon.
In the ruling, the commission denied a petition from Chickahominy Pipeline LLC that argued, in part, its proposed pipeline isn’t subject to SCC jurisdiction because the company doesn’t meet the state’s definition of a public utility under the Virginia Utility Facilities Act.
Chickahominy’s argument hinged on the claim that it isn’t a public utility because it only plans to transport gas, not sell it. The company asserted its pipeline would merely act as a channel for gas that a proposed power plant would then sell.
The commission rejected that claim, backing a hearing examiner’s opinion that determined the company is, in fact, a public utility and, therefore, subject to state oversight. The pipeline it proposes to construct and operate would require a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity from the SCC.
Specifically, the commission agreed with Hearing Examiner D. Mathias Roussy, Jr.’s finding that Chickahominy would be a public utility “within the plain language of Code…because Chickahominy would be a ‘company that owns or operates facilities within the Commonwealth ... for the ... transmission, or distribution ... of natural. . . gas ... for sale for heat, light or power.’”
Chickahominy hopes to build a 24-inch pipeline to channel natural gas from the Transco Pipeline in western Louisa to a yet-to-be constructed 1650 MW power plant in Charles City County. That facility, under development by Chickahominy Power LLC, plans to sell its power on a wholesale market serving numerous states. Both Chickahominy Pipeline LLC and Chickahominy Power LLC are subsidiaries of Balico LLC.
As originally proposed, the pipeline would cut across the heart of Louisa County and impact some 180 parcels, connecting with the Transco Pipeline off James Madison Highway (Route 15). After leaving Louisa, It would travel through Hanover, Henrico, New Kent, and Charles City counties en route to the proposed power plant.
Louisa County joined Henrico and Hanover counties in formally responding to Chickahominy’s petition to the SCC. The county asked the commission to reject Chickahominy’s argument that its proposed pipeline isn’t subject to commission oversight.
Environmentalists and some landowners along the pipeline’s potential route cheered the SCC’s decision. Since the project first came to light this summer, opponents have argued that its construction isn’t necessary to meet Virginia’s energy needs and the project is out of step with the commonwealth’s efforts to achieve a carbon-free grid by 2050.
“The Chickahominy Pipeline would be a backwards-looking investment in so-called ‘natural’ gas at a time when Virginia has committed to a clean, zero-carbon energy grid. The Commission’s full oversight of this climate-warming project is necessary to protect the public interest,” Greg Buppert, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said in a news release. SELC represented several citizen and environmental groups in the SCC case.
“We are grateful to everyone who worked so hard to defeat the dangerous prospect of unregulated gas transmission through the heart of Virginia,” said Catharine Tucker of Hanover Citizens Against A Pipeline, a citizen group represented by SELC. “We remain vigilant to address any further efforts on the part of Chickahominy to pursue this unnecessary pipeline.”
If the project wins SCC approval, the pipeline could still be built but Wednesday’s ruling places obstacles in its path. Virginia Natural Gas, a public utility whose service area includes the pipeline’s route, contends that the commission is prohibited from issuing a certificate to Chickahominy to operate in its exclusive territory. Chickahominy claims that sourcing gas from VNG is “unfeasible,” necessitating the pipeline’s construction.
Shortly after the ruling, Chickahominy Pipeline spokesperson Beth Minear wrote in an email to Virginia Mercury that the company is “weighing its options on how to proceed” and that all options “are on the table.”
“As we’ve previously affirmed, the requirement of full SCC regulation of the pipeline would not cause Chickahominy Pipeline to abandon the proposed project. Chickahominy Pipeline still plans to pursue this project. The power generation station that the Chickahominy Pipeline intends to serve is already permitted and shovel-ready,” Minear wrote, according to the Mercury.
Since news of the pipeline became public in July, Chickahominy has ruffled the feathers of some potentially-impacted parties including officials in Louisa County. The Board of Supervisors invited Irfan Ali, the project’s lead developer, to a September meeting in hopes of learning more about the project but he failed to show up. He indicated he forgot to put the meeting on his calendar.
At the board’s October 4 meeting, a representative from Encompass Energy, a firm contracted to negotiate access to properties to investigate their suitability for pipeline construction, provided a brief presentation on Chickahominy’s behalf. The presentation offered little new insight into the proposed project and prompted Mineral District Supervisor Duane Adams to call it, “the worst presentation that I’ve ever seen in my life.”
In a November 10 letter to “landowners and stakeholders,” Chickahominy acknowledged its poor public outreach efforts.
“Chickahominy Pipeline understands that the most frequent concern cited by you is the lack of credible information about the project. We acknowledge that we could have done a better job communicating with stakeholders, ahead of launching our initiative. Going forward, we intend to keep you informed,” the letter stated.
The company held a virtual town hall to provide information and answer questions about the project on December 9 and noted that it also plans to hold in-person events.
Solar committee shares recommendations to guide future of utility-scale solar development
The Louisa County Board of Supervisors received a report from its solar committee Monday night that could lay the groundwork for significant changes in the county’s approach to utility-scale solar development. (meeting materials, video)
Mineral District Supervisor Duane Adams and Patrick Henry District Supervisor Fitzgerald Barnes, who comprise the committee, spent the last several months researching and crafting recommendations for ordinances and policies that aim to address concerns raised by residents, county officials, and other stakeholders. They include suggestions related to the number and size of solar facilities in the county, specific siting and buffering requirements, and beefed up erosion and sediment control provisions, among other considerations.
“This is probably not all-inclusive but we think it’s a very comprehensive guideline to start with,” Adams said, noting that the report addresses issues that have arisen at already-approved solar projects and lessons the committee has learned through its involvement in several permitting processes. He added that the committee “leaned heavily” on county staff and looked at best practices implemented in other localities, calling the suggestions “good common sense starting points.”
Specifically, the committee recommends requiring a minimum of 151 megawatts of power production for any future utility-scale solar projects permitted in the county and potentially capping the total acreage used for solar sites. The committee suggests limiting solar development to three percent of the county’s land, about 9,800 acres.
Adams said that, currently, the county has about 5,000 acres committed to large-scale solar development including the 1,234-acre Two Oaks facility that cleared the Planning Commission earlier this month and is awaiting board approval. So, implementing a cap on acreage and a floor for megawatt production would likely mean only three more facilities could be built in the county, he said.
Adams explained that the committee chose the 151 MW floor for two reasons: to slow the proliferation of smaller-scale sites and to maximize tax revenue from any future projects. Per state law, utility-scale solar facilities subject to a locality’s machinery and tools tax initially receive an 80 percent tax abatement if they produce 150 MW of power or less. Facilities that produce more than 150 MW receive no tax break.
“As we look across the county, if we are going to continue to have solar projects, we should maximize the remaining acreage so the taxpayers get a return on these projects,’ Adams said.
Adams and Barnes also offered specific siting recommendations. They suggested requiring a 300-foot vegetative buffer around all future projects, prohibiting solar facilities in certain growth areas, and limiting solar sites to within one mile of existing high-voltage distribution or transmission lines. Projects sited over a mile from high-voltage lines could be considered on a case-by-case basis.
In the wake of significant damage from runoff around Dominion’s Belcher Solar Facility off Waldrop Church Road, the committee took a hard look at erosion and sediment control measures aimed at preventing the problems at Belcher from happening elsewhere.
“Right now, in the industry today, when you say ‘Belcher’ a lot of people frown. We went in and tried to fix a lot of that,” Barnes said.
Barnes and Adams suggested several provisions that are similar to requirements included in the Conditional Use Permits for one recently-approved facility, Aura’s 94 MW site near the Town of Mineral, and the proposed Two Oaks site.
The committee recommends that all future projects implement a phased approach to site preparation and construction with no more than 100 acres cleared at a time. All sediment control features would require county approval on a phase by phase basis and no stormwater holding ponds would be permitted in the property’s vegetative buffers.
In addition, Barnes and Adams suggest that applicants “obtain a written report from either an independent engineer or the zoning administrator determining the stabilization of each phase of construction. Once this determination is made another phase of land disturbance activities can begin,” per the committee’s report.
Barnes and Adams also recommend requiring applicants to pay a third-party engineer to check on construction weekly and ensure it’s proceeding in accordance with the terms of the Conditional Use Permit. Applicants would also be required to submit “a bond sufficient to ensure compliance with the construction requirements of the CUP as determined by staff.” The bond would be released after the independent engineer or zoning administrator certifies the facility’s compliance with the CUP.
Adams and Barnes suggested that the county consider temporarily “suspending CUP applications for utility-scale solar energy projects for a specified period” while supervisors work on amendments to county Land Use Regulations. They noted that the report includes recommendations to inform further discussion and any amendments to local ordinances would require public hearings in front of the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors or a joint hearing.
Louisa County has green-lighted six utility-scale solar projects to date with a CUP application for a seventh pending approval. The county adopted a significant rewrite of its Land Use Regulations in February, which included a solar ordinance. In a memo to the board, Community Development Director Robert Gardner described that as the “first step to provide a fixed standard for development.”
Read the full solar committee report here.
Supervisors approve purchase of office building in Louisa County Industrial Air Park
The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Monday night to approve the purchase of an office building and adjoining lot in the Louisa County Industrial Air Park that will provide more space for county government agencies. (meeting materials, video)
The county plans to buy a 5.8-acre lot (tmp 41B 1 4), home to an office building that formerly housed the headquarters of Virginia Community Bank, and a 3.95-acre adjoining parcel (tmp 41 200). Both properties are located off Industrial Drive near the park’s main entrance.
According to a sales contract, the county will purchase the properties from Virginia Community Bank for $2 million, roughly their assessed value. The deal is expected to close on January 19.
Aside from approving a resolution authorizing the acquisition, supervisors and county staff didn’t publicly discuss the purchase Monday night. Since the expenditure exceeds one percent of the county’s annual budget, its appropriation requires a public hearing. That hearing is scheduled for the board’s January 3 meeting.
The county has advertised a public hearing to allocate over $3.6 million in federal pandemic relief funds, which it received from the American Rescue Plan Act. Money to acquire the properties will be drawn from that funding. It’s unclear how the county plans to spend the other $1.6 million set for appropriation at the hearing.
The public notice says localities are authorized to use ARPA money “to (1) respond to the COVID-19 public health emergency or its negative economic impacts (2) respond to workers performing essential work during the COVID-19 public health emergency (3) government services to the extent of County revenue loss due to the COVID-19 health emergency and (4) to make necessary investments in water, sewer, or broadband infrastructure.”
The county is expecting to receive about $7.3 million from ARPA in two tranches. The first round of funding arrived last spring and the second round is expected this spring, according to the US Department of the Treasury.
County officials haven’t publicly shared details on how they plan to use the new office space. County Administrator Christian Goodwin said at previous meetings that the opportunity to buy the building comes as the health department is in search of a more permanent home. The department currently operates out of leased mobile units adjacent to the Betty Queen Center.
Goodwin told the board that the office building would provide flexibility in the placement of county services and that he and his staff are evaluating which agencies could move into the space, specifically mentioning it as a potential home for the county’s human services department.
BOS Roundup: more news and notes from supervisors’ Dec. 20 meeting
Supervisors met for about three hours Monday night in their final meeting of calendar year 2021, hearing several presentations, considering a few significant action items, and bidding farewell to Board Chair Bob Babyok. (meeting materials, video)
More news and notes from the meeting:
Supervisors vote to dissolve Zion Crossroads Volunteer Fire Department: Supervisors voted unanimously to approve an agreement that terminates the Zion Crossroads Volunteer Fire Department, a move that came at the department’s request. The agreement also transfers ownership of most of the department’s assets, including its fire station and eight vehicles, to Louisa County.
Supervisors okayed a second resolution formally approving the county’s acquisition of the fire station, which sits on a 2.5-acre lot off Poindexter Road (Route 613). Paid county staff is already operating out of the facility and will continue to serve the area.
Though the Zion VFD requested dissolution, the move concerned Mountain Road District Supervisor Tommy Barlow. Barlow told his colleagues that he’s worried about the loss of volunteers across the county.
“I really hate to see one of our longtime volunteer organizations go defunct,” Barlow said, adding that the county “is getting closer and closer” to a full career staff. “It’s disheartening and I think it’s going to get extremely expensive. I just want to make sure we are doing everything possible to keep our volunteers afloat.”
Jackson District Supervisor Toni Williams responded that the county is introducing a new incentive plan for volunteers in January. Fire and EMS Chief Robert Dube told the board that the department received a roughly half million dollar grant aimed at volunteer recruitment and retention and its currently searching for a part-time volunteer coordinator as part of the grant.
Board forms committee to look into coyote problem: Supervisors voted unanimously to form a committee tasked with gathering information about the proliferation of coyotes in Louisa County and exploring ways in which local government might help control their population and mitigate their damage.
Before agreeing to form the committee, the board discussed the possibility of establishing a coyote bounty hunting program, a move supported by a pair of professional trappers who attended the meeting.
Trapper Morgan Perkins told supervisors that coyotes are a serious problem in the county and their population is increasing. He said he is “flooded with calls” from farmers and other residents whose livestock and pets have been killed by the animals. Perkins urged the county to incentivize coyote hunting and trapping by implementing a bounty program.
“There’s nothing set in stone to pay us for our time. If there were 10 or 15 of me running around Louisa…Louisa wouldn’t have a (coyote) problem. I’ll tell you straight up, I got 80-some coyotes last year and didn’t breathe hard,” Perkins said, noting that many local farmers can’t afford his services.
Coyotes are considered a nuisance species in Virginia, meaning no permit is required to kill them and it’s always open season. Virginia law permits localities to establish, by ordinance, bounty programs that use public funds to pay a reward for any coyote killed within their boundaries. Seventeen Virginia localities have bounty programs but only 10 fund them, according to Cale Godfrey, assistant chief of the wildlife division at Virginia’s Department of Wildlife Resources.
Godfrey told supervisors that county-wide bounty programs aren’t effective in controlling the coyote population and, if the county is interested in wading into the problem, the best approach is to develop a targeted program at the hyperlocal level.
“If the county wants to do something, don’t think total population control, think very targeted control. That’s where you are going to have your best result, where you can help an individual that has a problem resolve that problem,” Godfrey said. “But, in doing that targeted removal, you are not going to have a population-level impact. You are helping one individual or a few individuals with very specific conflict issues.”
Godfrey explained that coyotes are highly adaptive creatures that increase their breeding when their population declines and migrate to areas where their population is sparse.
“The (coyote’s) social structure is very complex. They are very rapid in being able to fill in any gaps out there where coyotes have been removed,” he said.
Godfrey said that at least 60 percent of the coyote population in a given area must be killed annually to even have a shot at population control. He estimates there are about 1,000 coyotes in Louisa County, calling that a conservative guess.
Mineral District Supervisor Duane Adams, an avid hunter, said that bounty programs sound like a “feel good answer to a problem that there’s not really an answer to.”
Godfrey reiterated that the county could potentially help some residents who are losing livestock or pets to coyotes via a localized, targeted program but no board action could succeed in limiting the coyote population in the county as a whole.
He suggested that county officials work with DWR, representatives from the USDA’s wildlife program, local trappers, and other stakeholders to develop targeted mitigation strategies. He pointed to the USDA’s livestock protection program as a measure that might be worth trying to replicate at the local level to help residents experiencing coyote conflict.
Jackson District Supervisor Toni Williams, who owns a farm with livestock in eastern Louisa, volunteered to serve on a committee to further explore the issue and Patrick Henry District Supervisor Fitzgerald Barnes agreed to join him.
Board approves budget transfer for road improvements at Shannon Hill Regional Business Park: Supervisors authorized a $473,902 budget transfer “for construction of road enhancements” at Shannon Hill Regional Business Park, according to the approved resolution.
The county will transfer the funds from its Transportation Investment Fund, which is used to “save for transportation projects that have significant public value, as determined by the Board of Supervisors” to the Regional Business Park Transportation Capital Project.
Earlier this year, the Commonwealth Transportation Board approved a $643,000 grant for the park to help cover the costs of design work for road improvements. That funding was made available via the state’s Economic Development Access program.
Board bids farewell to chairman: Board members bid farewell to Green Springs District Supervisor Bob Babyok Monday night, honoring him for his service and sharing some kind words about his tenure.
Babyok was elected to the board in 2017 and served as its chair for the last two years. He lost his bid for re-election in November. Supervisor-elect Rachel Jones will join the body at its January 3 meeting.
Jackson District Supervisor Toni Williams told Babyok that he had a “good time” sitting next to him at the dais over the last few years.
“I appreciate who you are as a person more than anything else. I’ve never heard you say anything bad about anybody or anything. You’ve always had a positive light no matter what the situation. That’s just such a wonderful attribute to be able to find the good in everything,” he said.
Cuckoo District Supervisor Willie Gentry described Babyok as one who always sought consensus.
“You really wanted everybody to work together. You made special efforts on that. Sometimes, it didn’t work out like you planned but there was always that initiative to make that move. I’ve been around a lot of board members over the years and you are probably the best at trying to do that,” Gentry said.
Babyok told his colleagues that serving on the board had been both an honor and a learning experience. He thanked his fellow supervisors and expressed appreciation for county staff.
“My hat goes off to all the county staff that we have here. We are so far ahead of most counties. You see the success that we have and it’s for that reason. It’s the quality of the people we have here,” Babyok said.
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.
Click here for contact information for the Louisa County School Board.
Click here for minutes and agendas for school board meetings.