New solar power plant in Pulaski County raises concern among farmers

Published: Jan. 12, 2021 at 5:53 AM EST
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PULASKI COUNTY, Va. (WDBJ) - A lot of debate is circling around whether to build a new solar power plant in Pulaski County.

Many farmers are concerned the plant could have a negative impact on agriculture and their livelihoods. Other residents say this is a good opportunity for the county to create additional revenue in the least impactful way.

The Pulaski County Planning Commission will meet Tuesday, Jan. 12, to decide whether to recommend a special use permit for a new solar farm.

The land where the solar farm would be built is zoned for agricultural use. Some farmers say despite the name, solar farming has nothing to do with farming or agriculture at all. They argue this is the wrong move for the county.

“It’s beautiful country and it’s prime farmland also,” farmer Joe Meek said. “That’s one of the reasons why we selected this piece of property.”

Meek has lived on 100+ acres in the county since 2005. His livelihood is in raising cattle and he worries a solar farm could threaten that way of life.

“Reducing the amount of land that’s available for agriculture hurts this county and the region by hurting agricultural suppliers like feed stores, fertilizers, even auto parts and tires,” Meek said. “Anything that supplies an Ag business is going to lose on this project.”

Meek was one of the farmers approached about the opportunity to lease part of his land for the project.

“I just told him absolutely not,” he said. “I have just a little over 100 acres. If I lease 25 to 50 acres out to put solar panels on it, it ruins the rest of my operation.”

However, some of his neighbors did take the board of supervisors up on their offer and now part of Meek’s view could include solar panels.

“You know this section of solar panels will actually start about that lone tree across the road,” he said pointing in the distance.

The number of acres intended for the solar farm is about 3% of the total agricultural land in the county. The land itself will initially be leased for 35 years.

Dairy farmer Scott Flory says that’s enough to impact the natural ecosystem though it’s unclear how.

“You can’t do a study to see what kind of pressure there’s going to be on both natural and other animals of prey,” he explained. “Is that going to be a problem? We don’t really know.”

County administrator Jonathan Sweet has been involved in the project since it was first brought to Pulaski in 2018. He’s looking at how this project can benefit residents.

“Where it can ultimately optimize the investment back to the greater community,” Sweet said.

He said apart from changing the view, there’s more positive impact than negative, starting with providing additional income to the landowners themselves, who would be leasing the property, not selling it.

“Just because it’s being leased does not mean these owners relinquish care or concern for these lands,” he said.

The power plant will also be a new source of revenue for the county, providing funds for additional resources like a new community center.

“[That’s] where the entire community can enjoy and it can be generational and have a lot more residual positive impact to the county,” he said.

And it would establish Pulaski as one of the greener counties per capita on the eastern seaboard.

“That bodes a lot of opportunity for marketing our county to Fortune 500 companies who have a significant interest in reducing their carbon footprint,” Sweet said.

A final advantage to the solar farm is its positive effects on the environment and water sources.

“There’s not going to be any fertilizer being dumped from helicopters or planes, any kind of cropping, dusting being done or anything like that,” he explained.

Though there is much debate on the project, there is agreement in the magnitude of this decision.

“It’s a lot of weight to it,” Flory said.

Sweet said it ultimately boils down to a case study in property rights.

“Do farmers have the right to lease their property for a project like this?” He questioned.

For Meek and others involved in the Save Pulaski County Farms initiative, they urge folks to consider how this could change Pulaski’s landscape.

“This was an agricultural district,” Meek said. “We feel like it should stay an agricultural district. I realize they’re calling it solar farming, but it’s the furthest thing from farming.”

And it’s something the residents and officials alike have to think through thoroughly.

“Whatever the outcome may be, I will feel that the process has taken place and the right decision will be made because of the process,” Sweet said.

Tuesday’s planning commission meeting is at 7 p.m. at the Pulaski County High School Little Theater. They’ll hear from citizens before making their recommendation.

The board of supervisors will have the final say at its next meeting January 25. If the special use permit is approved, construction on the solar farm could begin as early as spring 2021.

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