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Surry solar project decision delayed

Surry County will wait until next month to decide on a project that would allow a 240 megawatt solar energy project that would span more than 1,000 acres across Surry and Isle of Wight counties.

The decision of the Surry County Board of Supervisors came following an April 1 public hearing during the board’s monthly meeting. The meeting was held totally virtually due to the coronavirus pandemic.

After listening to comments from residents of each of the county’s five election districts, that were for and against the solar project, Supervisor Michael Drewry said he wasn’t prepared to make a decision at the meeting. Before deciding, Drewry said, he’d like several questions answered. They include concerns about site fencing and vegetative buffers, how a historic property off Mill Swamp Road might be affected by the project and perhaps most importantly, what happens to the project if Isle of Wight County doesn’t move forward.

The board agreed to delay a decision on the project until its May 6 meeting.

Supervisor Judy Lyttle agreed that there are still many questions to be addressed but overall, she said, “solar, I think is a good partner for the community.” Lyttle added that “Life is changing, how we do business is changing, the world is changing and solar is not the only thing we’re going to see in the future,” in terms of economic opportunities and community development considerations.

The solar project is expected to generate 240 megawatts of power — about 180 megawatts would be in Surry. The electricity would be fed into the grid through a nearby existing Dominion Energy substation. If approved, construction would take about 18 months. Cavalier said the $225 million investment in the project would generate about $16.7 million in revenue for Surry County. The project’s anticipated lifespan is 35 years.

To move forward, Cavalier is seeking county approval of a comprehensive plan map amendment, a rezoning application, a conditional use permit and a “substantially in accord” determination. Cavalier Solar is a subsidiary of Salt Lake City-based sPower, a utility-scale wind and solar company.

The Isle of Wight Planning Commission has already given its nod to the portions of the project in that county. See related story here.

Also at the meeting, the supervisors heard from Surry County Public Schools Superintendent Sebrenia Sims, who told the board that the school division is proposing a $17.49 million budget for the 2021-2022 fiscal year.

The school’s proposed operating budget is $15.54 million. Including grants and food service operations brings the total to $17.49 million. Sims said the budget proposal will support a projected enrollment of 616 students in three schools and support a state-mandated 5% salary increase while reducing existing staffing by two and a half full-time equivalent positions, which will reduce staffing costs by $125,000.

“With Surry County currently running three schools and having to triplicate multiple areas from cafeteria to custodial to heating and air conditioning, that adds to our overall budget as well as our per-pupil expenditures,” Sims said. “In addition to that, COVID-19 forced us to spend quite a bit of additional money on technology just to make sure that our students were able to access instruction from home.”

School officials previously discussed budgeting and possibly spending $125 million for a new consolidated school facility in the 2025-2026 budget during a recent joint meeting between the school board, school administrators, county leaders and the board of supervisors.

Luther Porter Jackson Middle School’s building is 25 years old, Surry Elementary School’s building is nearly 40 years old and Surry High School building is nearly 50 years old, school officials said earlier this year. The board is expected to take action on the school budget as part of the county’s overall budget next month.

Near the end of the meeting, Supervisor Robert Elliott said the board received four applications for appointment to the board’s Carsley District seat, which was most recently held by former Supervisor Kenneth Holmes, who resigned in late February due to health reasons. Holmes died March 23.

Elliott said the candidates are expected to appear before the board on April 8, and they will have three minutes to make their case for appointment to the board during a closed session. Under state law, the board must make an appointment by April 14, or a circuit court judge may do so. The board is petitioning the court to hold a special election on Nov. 2 to fill the remainder of Holmes’ unexpired term, which ends in 2023.