sPower (copy)

Trucks carry equipment to the construction site of the sPower solar-energy facility in Spotsylvania County.

An appeal by neighboring property owners failed to reverse an earlier zoning decision involving the solar plant being built in western Spotsylvania County.

Four property owners who live next to or near the construction site filed the initial complaints over what they deemed were violations of agreed-upon buffers and setbacks. The company, sPower, was found to be in compliance with zoning regulations, and the county’s zoning administrator determined there were no violations.

The county’s Board of Zoning Appeals heard the case Tuesday evening. The hearing was held at the Richard E. Halbert building and live-streamed online.

County staff, zoning administrator Kimberly Pomatto and representatives for sPower, the Utah-based company building the 500 megawatt solar facility, presented their case against the four appellants.

The company plans to put 1.8 million solar panels on portions of a more than 6,300-acre parcel. The county approved the facility in April 2019. The approval included a long list of requirements in order for the special-use permit for the project to be approved.

Crews for sPower have been at work for months on the first—and most extensive—phase of what is one of the nation’s largest solar projects. The panels will supply electricity that’s already been contracted for use by Apple, Microsoft and the University of Richmond.

At Tuesday’s hearing, the county argued that the original complaints were investigated and the zoning administrator determined there were no violations.

There have been violations on the project, though unrelated to the appeal. In one instance, the county required sPower to remove planted trees that violated a buffer area. The county has fined sPower $744 for erosion and sediment control issues.

The county contended that the appellants failed to prove their case and meet requirements for an appeal, one of which is proving harm to the property owners.

The attorney representing neighboring property owners, Clark Leming, mentioned something known as the heat island effect. Some studies on heat island effects contend that large solar facilities increase temperatures in the area around them.

Leming said the buffer and setback violations could led to such heat island effects impacting his clients, but sPower’s representative told the board those claims have been “debunked.”

Leming also argued that county staff misinterpreted what buffers and setbacks are. In summarizing her case, Pomatto said the complainants made their own interpretations of the SUP requirements.

The zoning administrator also pointed out that the complainants acknowledged several points against their own case, including the fact that the basins are allowed in the buffer area because they meet “vegetative buffer” requirements.

Pomatto also highlighted an argument over the property boundary between sPower and one complainant, Michael O’Bier. She said the county paid for a survey that confirmed sPower’s survey findings.

After several hours of testimony and discussion of the case details, the board voted, 5–2, to deny the appeal.

Scott Shenk: 540/374-5436

sshenk@freelancestar.com

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