This week in county government; Supes approve county's sixth utility-scale solar site, table decision on through truck restriction; BOS roundup; Louisa's legislators play role in Youngkin transition
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, Nov. 29 through Dec. 4
Thursday, December 2
Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission, virtual meeting, 7 pm. A Zoom link is available in the meeting materials. According to the meeting agenda, the commission will hear a legislative update from Deputy Director David Blount ahead of the 2022 General Assembly session, preview its meeting calendar for the coming year, and honor Commissioner Bob Babyok for his service to the body, among other business.
Babyok is one of two Louisa supervisors who currently serve on the commission. He lost his bid for re-election to the Green Springs District Board of Supervisors seat earlier this month. It’s unclear who will replace him on the regional planning body. Mountain Road District Supervisor Tommy Barlow is Louisa’s other representative.
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 county’s sixth utility-scale solar facility
More solar panels are coming to Louisa County.
Supervisors green-lighted the county’s sixth utility-scale solar site Monday night, voting 6-0 to approve Aura Power Development LLC’s request for a Conditional Use Permit to construct and operate an up to 94 MW solar array on parts of a 448.9-acre tract near the Town of Mineral. The parcel is owned by Louisa District Supervisor Eric Purcell and his father, Charles, via Mine & Hemmer LLC. Purcell recused himself from considering the CUP request. (meeting materials, video)
The site is located east of Chopping Road (Route 623) behind Hidden Farms Estates, west of Zachary Taylor Highway (Route 522), and north of the CSX railroad line in the Mineral Voting District. Much of the property is zoned agricultural (A-2) but portions fall into residential (R-2) and commercial (C-2) zoning. The property is accessed by Old County Road (Route 746) and designated as rural/agricultural on the Future Land Use Map in the 2040 Comprehensive Plan.
According to the staff report, the solar array and ancillary equipment will cover a maximum of 224 acres. The remainder of the property will be “used for setbacks, vegetative buffers, pollinator plantings, creeks, streams, wetland protection areas, erosion and sediment control measures, stormwater management, roads, and construction staging areas.”
The facility, which is expected to operate for 35 to 50 years, will connect to Dominion’s electric grid via a 230 kV transmission line that traverses the property. Construction could begin in 2023.
In his presentation Monday night, Charles Purcell told supervisors that solar projects can be done properly or poorly and a key component of what makes a solar facility beneficial to a community as opposed to detrimental is “who you are working with.”
The Purcells opted for Aura Power, a company based in the United Kingdom that has built solar facilities across the world. Purcell described Aura as “environmentally friendly” and emphasized that the company listened to local concerns.
Purcell zeroed in on three areas that have stirred anxiety around utility-scale solar development in the county: erosion and sediment control, buffering to protect view sheds, and traffic during construction.
Erosion and sediment control
Purcell sought to differentiate Mine & Hemmer from Dominion’s Belcher facility off Waldrop Church Road where stormwater runoff has caused significant damage to nearby farms. The fallout from Belcher’s construction has pushed county officials to re-evaluate their approach to large-scale solar development.
“When Belcher was done, it was 1,100 acres cleared at one time and they had problems with erosion and sediment control. Most any farmer will tell you that that is going to occur if you clear that much land at one time,” Purcell said.
In contrast, he said, only about 200 acres will be cleared at Mine & Hemmer and the project will include 27 sediment basins, accompanied by diversion ditches and surrounded by silt fencing. He pointed out that the project will be constructed in phases with the smallest phase consisting of about 35 acres and the largest encompassing about 85 acres.
County planning staff requested a phased approach to construction largely in response to issues at Belcher. Purcell noted that Aura already intended to construct the facility in phases prior to the county's request. Staff also requested a slope map that shows the estimated location of erosion and sediment control features in relation to contour elevations, which is provided as a supporting document to Aura’s application.
The CUP includes some beefed up provisions specifically related to soil stabilization. For example, all sediment control features on a particular phase must be approved by the county before any land disturbance or construction activities are permitted. Upon completion, each phase is again subject to county approval.
Aura is obligated to have an inspector on site daily to monitor construction. The inspector will “provide the county a weekly status report on the project and any issues while coordinating with the County Erosion and Sediment Control inspector, Thomas Jefferson Soil and Water Conservation District, and the Virginia Department of Environment Quality, as necessary, to resolve any stormwater and erosion and sediment control issues that occur on site,” per the CUP.
The CUP also requires Aura to submit a $500,000 bond to ensure compliance, which will be released after the project’s completion. In addition, the county has the option to hire a third-party engineer to evaluate the site during construction. Provided the county acquires three bids, Aura is obligated to cover the cost not exceeding five hours of work per week.
Several of the original conditions included in the CUP were amended at Monday night’s meeting. Mineral District Supervisor Duane Adams outlined the amendments, including the bond requirement and option to hire an independent engineer at the applicant’s expense, and his colleague, Patrick Henry District Supervisor Fitzgerald Barnes, suggested that they may be a preview of coming regulations.
Adams and Barnes comprise the board’s solar committee, which is tasked with crafting potential ordinances and policies to guide utility-scale solar development in the county. The committee is expected to issue a comprehensive report on its recommendations and other activities at supervisors’ December 20 meeting.
“We’ve had projects that have been under a lot of scrutiny here in the county and Mr. Adams and myself have been appointed to a committee to work on that. I want you to know that these recommendations aren’t just for your project,” Barnes told Purcell. “This language is probably going to be present in future projects.”
Purcell said that Mine & Hemmer will include ample buffering and neighbors won’t see the solar panels.
“We are maintaining the rural character of the property,” he said.
The site will include a 200-foot vegetative buffer around its periphery, exceeding the county’s 150-foot requirement. Purcell said that 100 feet will be covered in fast-growing pine trees with 542 trees planted per acre. He noted that the trees grow about four feet per year and should be 10 to 12 feet tall when construction begins. The remainder of the buffer will be covered in pollinator plantings.
Construction traffic and its impact on the county’s transportation infrastructure has also emerged as a concern in previous projects. The Mine & Hemmer site is located in close proximity to Louisa County High School and Middle School, an area that experiences significant congestion during peak hours.
The CUP stipulates that “construction traffic will be scheduled to avoid morning and afternoon peak traffic periods, particularly the times around school bus arrival and departure.”
In addition, the applicant agreed to make improvements to Old County Road, keep roadways free of mud, and implement various traffic control measures like having a flagman on site.
Residents weigh in
Five people spoke in favor of the project during the public hearing while one person voiced concern about the proliferation of large solar sites. Purcell submitted a petition, signed by 33 neighbors who, he said, supported the facility.
“There are so many other things that could enter into (the area) that could have an impact on surrounding property owners and an impact on the county,” Mineral District resident Ronnie Laws said. “This project does not. It gives you a good tax base and doesn’t draw anything from the county service-wise.”
Robert Witt, an Apple Grove resident who lives near another solar project that the county approved last year, took a different view.
Among other worries, he expressed concern about utility-scale solar development’s impact on wildlife. He said fencing off large parcels for such development affects animals’ migration patterns and he wondered if the issue has been adequately studied.
“I’m speaking for animals who can’t speak for themselves,” he said.
Aura already has one solar facility approved in the county: a yet-to-be built array permitted for up to 244 MW and slated for construction on portions of a roughly 1400-acre tract owned by the Purcells. The Board of Supervisors okayed that project, which stretches from just south of Davis Highway (Route 22) to the county’s reservoir, last year.
The applicant noted Monday night that Mine & Hemmer is a companion project to Aura’s already-approved site, dubbed Fisher Chewning. Together, the applicant said, the two arrays would produce up to 244 MW of solar power with the former producing no more than 94 and the latter no more than 150.
The relationship between the two projects sparked Adams’ interest, particularly with respect to how they will be taxed.
Both facilities are subject to the county’s machinery and tools tax. But, projects at or under 150 MW, per state law, are eligible for an 80 percent exemption, which is stepped down to 60 percent over time. But, projects over 150 MW receive no exemption.
Adams noted that Fisher Chewning’s CUP allows for up to 244 MW yet Aura only plans to build a project that produces 150. He said, at 150 MW, the county could bring in about $9 million in tax revenue from Fisher Chewning over 35 years. But, he pointed out, slightly increasing the size of the project could net the county some $21 million more because the tax break phases out at the 150 MW threshold. Adams asked if Aura could engineer Fisher Chewning so that it could produce slightly more megawatts.
Aura representative Frances Boreham said that increasing Fisher Chewning’s size isn’t possible because the company has already filed a pair of applications with PJM, the entity that oversees the electric grid in numerous eastern states. Aura isn’t permitted to increase the size without losing its place in PJM’s lengthy project queue, she said.
Boreham explained that, following an initial study, Aura filed an application with PJM, in 2019, for an up to 94 MW array on Fisher Chewning. The company soon realized that it could potentially produce additional power on the site and filed a separate application for a 150 MW project.
Boreham said that Aura chose the 150 MW threshold because that’s the cut off for the Department of Environmental Quality’s permit by rule process. Projects over 150 MW are subject to approval by the State Corporation Commission. Boreham indicated that the company was unaware of the potential tax implications prior to Monday.
After conducting environmental, cultural resources, wetlands, and other studies at Fisher Chewning, Boreham said that Aura determined the site was only suitable for an up to 150 MW project. The company then worked with the Purcells to identity an additional tract for the up to 94 MW array.
“It became clear that there were more wetlands and we needed more erosion control features then we had originally anticipated,” Boreham said. “That was the point that we started talking to Mr. Purcell about the potential for adding additional land. We added that additional land earlier this year. Up until the spring of this year, the intention was to try and get everything on the Fisher Chewning site but the environmental concerns and the erosion control concerns just meant that that wasn’t the sensible way to develop the project.”
That explanation seemed to satisfy supervisors.
Exactly how much money the county will reap in tax revenue from the Mine & Hemmer site is unclear. Purcell provided an email from former Assistant County Administrator Jeff Ferrel that suggested the project would bring in just over $9 million over a 35-year lifespan.
County Administrator Christian Goodwin declined to provide an estimate on the tax revenue to Engage Louisa last week, noting that he wanted to be sure of its accuracy. He said that state regulations relating to depreciation and the machinery and tools tax change, complicating calculations.
Board tables decision on through truck restriction, alternate route
The Board of Supervisors made no decision Monday night on whether to request that the Virginia Department of Transportation implement a through truck traffic restriction on Chopping Road and part of Davis Highway. (meeting materials, video)
Following a public hearing, supervisors unanimously opted to table the decision and discussed convening a working group focused on how best to address through trucks.
Mineral District Supervisor Duane Adams voiced concerns about through trucks on Chopping Road earlier this year, saying that he regularly gets calls from constituents about the issue. He said that tractor trailers, looking for a short cut from Interstate 95 to Interstate 64, are causing a dangerous situation on a road that’s not equipped to handle such traffic.
“I really don’t care if Winn Dixie has to add 10 more miles to (its trucks’) route. I’m responsible and answerable to the people who live along that road and in Louisa County. It’s a major, major issue,” Adams said at a previous meeting.
As proposed, the restriction would prohibit through trucks—trucks that have no point of origin or destination along the subject route—from traveling along the roughly four and a half-mile Chopping Road (Route 623) as well as part of Davis Highway (Route 22-208) from East 1st Street in the Town of Mineral to School Bus Road (Route 767). The board originally considered barring through trucks from Chalklevel Road (Route 625) but instead included a portion of Davis Highway, which blocks trucks from using Chalklevel as a cut through to the Town of Louisa.
While there was some agreement Monday night that through trucks are a safety concern on Chopping Road, supervisors’ proposed alternate route, which would send trucks along Mineral Ave/Pendleton Road (Route 522) through the Town of Mineral and on to Jefferson Highway (Route 33), met resistance from members of the Mineral Town Council.
State code requires that localities seeking to bar through trucks on eligible roads hold a public hearing and propose a “reasonable” alternate route that’s engineered to a standard sufficient for truck traffic and doesn’t create undue hardship for trucks in reaching their destination (see map below). Proposed restrictions and alternate routes are subject to state evaluation and approval.
Mineral Mayor Pam Harlowe and Town Councilor Ed Kube both spoke during the public hearing, suggesting that the town wasn’t adequately consulted about the proposal and noting the difficulty large trucks face navigating turns and a raised railroad crossing in the town.
“We are moving a problem from one place to another. Historically, the safety hazards that are in the Town of Mineral have existed for years,” Kube said.
In addition, representatives from Barton & Boyd, a local paving company, and the Virginia Loggers Association expressed concerns about the proposed restriction, which, they feared, could inconvenience trucks doing business locally but not originating or traveling to a location on the restricted route.
Two Chopping Road residents also weighed in. David Rogers, who has lived along the road for 14 years, said there are two problems on Chopping Road “truckers and speed” and shared several examples of incidents involving tractor trailers near his home.
In an email to supervisors, Lloyd Runnett said he’s lived and raised a family on Chopping Road over the last 30 years, noting that the area was once a “peaceful village, receiving little and primarily local traffic.” But, he wrote, GPS technology changed all that and now the road “can only be described as dangerous.”
“Let me be clear, we do not want Chopping Road improved to accommodate this increased volume. We want the bypassing large truck removed from Chopping Road and directed to Zachary Taylor Highway that VDOT designated as the primary road for this purpose,” Runnett wrote. (Zachery Taylor Highway is the name for Route 522 north of the Town of Mineral).
Adams echoed Runnett’s point that tractor trailers don’t belong on Chopping Road.
“For all the reasons that Mineral is concerned about those tractor trailers making turns and being in that area, they are in that area on a primary road. They are doing the same thing now on a secondary road that doesn’t have any shoulders,” he said.
Jackson District Supervisor Toni Williams said he’s concerned about the restriction’s potential impact on local businesses like Barton & Boyd, who often use dump trucks with attached trailers for deliveries and other work. He asked VDOT Administrator Alan Saunders, who is guiding the county through the restriction process, exactly which kinds of trucks would be barred.
Saunders said that he doesn’t think dump trucks with trailers would be restricted but needs to clarify and follow up with the board. He pointed out that the public hearing notice didn’t explicitly mention dump trucks pulling trailers as a restricted vehicle.
The resolution under consideration Monday night, drawing on state code, stated that, “such restriction may apply to any truck or truck and trailer or semitrailer combination, except a pickup or panel truck, as may be necessary to promote the health, safety, and welfare of the citizens of the Commonwealth.”
Adams suggested that the county could remove Davis Highway from the restriction and return to a previous idea to bar trucks on Chalklevel as that would likely ease the burden on some local businesses. Adams noted that tractor trailers heading to Interstate 64 are already unable to access Davis Highway from the Town of Mineral because its physically impossible for them to make a right turn at the stoplight in the town.
Adams said that the intent of the through truck restriction is not to harm local businesses but to get tractor trailers cutting through on Chopping Road back on a route suited to handle them.
“I am concerned about these through tractor trailers. I have sat on Chopping Road and counted as many as 40 CVS, Wegmans…those are the ones I am concerned about. Our local loggers, our local farmers, our local businesses, they’re not the ones creating the hazard,” he said.
Adams also worried that through trucks would use Shannon Hill Road (Route 605) as a cut through, an issue that arose during the approval process for the Shannon Hill Business Park. He said trucks should access the park from the interstate then return to it and suggested adding the road to the restricted path. Saunders said that any changes to the proposed restrictions or alternate route would require advertising and another public hearing.
Green Springs District Supervisor Bob Babyok asked Saunders if there are improvements that could be made to Chopping Road via the county’s six-year road plan. Saunders responded that there are low-cost measures that could be implemented like opening up sight lines by laying back trees and trench widening the roadway in certain areas with property owners’ permission. He also mentioned enhanced speed limit enforcement.
Adams said that such improvements are an appropriate response to the more than 4,000 cars that travel the road daily but they don’t adequately address the dozens of tractor trailers. But, he also acknowledged the concerns of the Mineral Town Council, saying that he didn’t want to move an accident from Chopping Road to the town.
Cuckoo District Supervisor Willie Gentry, a former VDOT administrator, suggested that the department look back to solutions that were proposed some 30 years ago to help remedy the tricky maneuvers large trucks must make when traveling through Mineral.
“If we are going to look at this alternate route, we need to bring that up again and address that same concern we’ve had for so many years,” he said.
Adams asked Saunders if VDOT would help the county facilitate a working group of stakeholders to discuss possible solutions to through truck traffic in more detail. Saunders agreed and Harlowe acknowledged that the Town of Mineral would be open to participating.
BOS roundup: Board appropriates additional funds for New Bridge Fire and Rescue Station; County eyes properties in industrial park
More news from Monday’s meeting:
Board appropriates additional funding for New Bridge Fire and Rescue Station
Supervisors unanimously approved an additional $600,000 appropriation for the New Bridge Fire and Rescue Station. The station is slated for construction on a 2.4-acre county-owned parcel (tmp 29 35A1) along Route 208 near the Lake Anna Food Lion. (meeting materials, video)
The board allocated $800,000 in county funds for the station during the FY21 budget process and the Foundation for Lake Anna Emergency Services raised an additional $100,000, which it donated to the county. But, County Administrator Christian Goodwin said that the station is now expected to cost $1.2 million with an additional $250,000 to $300,000 needed for site work.
The resolution approved Monday night cites “inflation and other factors” as the reasons for the cost increase. The county will draw the money from the Long Term School Capital Projects Assigned Fund Balance.
Superintendent of Schools Doug Straley told Engage Louisa that the division returns unused money to the capital fund each year and the county is using some of that for the supplemental appropriation.
“We are all on the same team here in the county,” he said.
Goodwin told the board that the county received an initial quote for the project via the Government Services Administration. But, an issue with the bidder’s GSA contract means the county will have to rebid the project. Goodwin expects to complete that process within a month.
County to explore buying office building in Louisa County Industrial Air Park
County officials are considering a significant real estate acquisition that would provide more office space for local government agencies.
County Administrator Christian Goodwin got a green light from supervisors to evaluate an opportunity to purchase a pair of properties off Industrial Drive in the Louisa County Industrial Air Park.
One parcel encompasses 5.409 acres (tmp 41B 1 4) and is home to an office building that formerly housed the headquarters of Virginia Community Bank. The land and improvements are assessed at about $1.86 million. The adjoining parcel (tmp 41 200) is 3.955 acres and includes no improvements. It’s assessed at $172,400. Blue Ridge Bank bought Virginia Community Bank in 2019 and both properties, according to Goodwin, are up for sale.
Goodwin said that the opportunity to buy the properties comes as the Louisa County Health Department’s lease on its current workspace is drawing to a close. The department, which is located in trailers adjacent to the Betty Queen Center, has reached out to the county in hopes of finding a more permanent home.
Goodwin suggested that acquiring the office building would provide local government increased flexibility in where to place its services and noted that purchasing the vacant parcel would offer room for future growth.
Mountain Road District Supervisor Tommy Barlow wondered if keeping the health department separate from the county’s administrative offices makes it difficult for people to find.
“One of the things that we could look at is ways we could shift things around over the longer term to bring them back to this area to alleviate that concern,” Goodwin said.
Local legislators to play role in Youngkin transition
The three men who represent Louisa County in the General Assembly, Delegate John McGuire and Senators Bryce Reeves and Mark Peake, will each play a role in Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin’s transition, according to an announcement from the incoming administration Wednesday afternoon.
Youngkin released the names of some 100 people who will serve on landing teams “that will coordinate with the cabinet secretaries from the current administration and conduct due diligence across all agencies so that the Youngkin administration will hit the ground running and begin delivering on its promises on Day One,” per the announcement.
McGuire, just re-elected to his third term to the 56th District House of Delegates seat, will serve as chair of the Veterans and Defense Affairs team. The Goochland resident served as a Navy Seal for ten years. The 56th District includes all of Louisa County.
Reeves, a former Army Ranger, was also named to the Veterans and Defense Affairs team. The Spotsylvania County resident has represented the 17th Senate District, which includes most of Louisa, since 2012.
Both McGuire and Reeves recently announced plans to seek the Republican nomination in the Seventh Congressional District next year. Democrat Abigial Spanberger currently holds the seat.
Peake, an attorney from Lynchburg, was named to the Technology and Cyber team. He’s represented the 22nd Senate District, which includes a slice of eastern Louisa, since 2017.
Youngkin’s landing teams include a mix of elected officials, business people, policy experts, conservative activists, and other Virginians. He named a 15-member transition steering committee earlier this month.
The former Carlyle Group co-CEO is the first Republican to win Virginia’s Executive Mansion since 2009. His inauguration is set for January 15.
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.