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Solar Farm planned near Austinville
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Solar Farm planned near Austinville

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A solar energy company is planning to build a solar farm 1.3 miles east of Interstate 77 near Austinville. The company, Savion LLC, has secured 858 acres for the project, which would produce enough energy to power about 14,000 homes in Virginia.

Despite some objections from nearby landowners, the Wythe County Board of Supervisors can do very little to stop the construction if the project complies with the county's comprehensive plan, said Brian Vaught, board chairman.

With no zoning in the county, the only way the project could be stopped is if it does not conform to the county’s comprehensive plan, a document renewed every five years and designed to be used as a decision-making tool to help guide the county’s growth and development.

The plan does not directly address solar farms. When the latest comprehensive plan was approved five years ago, solar farms were not on anyone’s radar, Vaught said, adding that the plan is to be updated within the next year.

During the July 14 Board of Supervisors meeting, supervisors asked the Wythe County Planning Commission to study Savion’s proposal to determine if the plan aligns with the comprehensive plan and report back to the board. The Planning Commission discussed the project when it met Aug. 3 and will meet again at 7 p.m. to discuss it on Monday, Aug. 10. The next Board of Supervisors meeting is set for the next day, Aug. 11, at 6 p.m.

Speaking to the Wythe County Board of Supervisors on July 28, Matt Hooper, senior development manager at Savion, said the company began the project in December 2016. The primary appeal of the site, Hooper said, is the 45-acre AEP substation located nearby. That means Savion would not have to build new transmission lines, Hooper said.

Hooper said the land adjacent to the substation provides a 675-acre footprint, with 858 acres under land agreements. The site is one mile from a major road, more than a half-mile from New River Trail State Park and more than a mile from Shot Tower State Park.

According to Hooper, the project will bring in $85,000 in tax revenue to the county and no additional infrastructure is necessary. He said the one-year construction phase will require 250-300 workers and that Savion hopes to employ local workers and local companies.

The life of the project is 35 years, after which Savion will remove the facility and restore the land, Hooper said.

During an earlier meeting in July, several residents spoke out against the solar project, worrying about its effect on nearby land, cattle and watersheds.

“I would like you folks really to look into the pros and cons and not make a hasty decision about the project,” said Betty Blair, whose land adjoins the solar farm site.

She urged supervisors to slow down and make sure they make the right decision.

Cody Jones said his family’s cattle rely on natural water and that if water gets polluted because of the project, “our entire farm is dead.”

Susan Branscome, whose land adjoins the solar farm site, worried about the farm’s effect on natural vegetation, animals and land values.

“They are proposing to take 858 acres to service 14,000 homes; 14,000 homes that are not in Wythe County. It’s going to a power grid,” she said.

According to information in the board meeting packet, environmental and other site studies are complete and DEQ permits are expected by the end of the year.

Savion has 21 projects in nine states in operation or under construction/contracted. The company has 71 projects in 23 states in development.

Vaught said he doesn’t think supervisors will have much say-so about the project if it  complies with the comprehensive plan and there’s no zoning in the county.

“There’s no legal way we can say you can’t build that in Wythe County,” he said. “I’ve never been a proponent of zoning, and it’s a double-edged sword, and this is one of those things that make you rethink your stance. With zoning, you have to have government you can trust, because seats change every two years. Right now, the board might not be heavy-handed about zoning, but in four years – you just don’t know.”

To reach reporter Millie Rothrock, call 276-228-6611, ext. 35, or email mrothrock@wythenews.com

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