Please, Norge, Don’t Go NIMBY on Solar Project

Norge residents gather to learn more about a proposed solar farm in their neighborhood. Photo credit: Virginia Gazette.

Report from today’s Virginia Gazette: Members of the Norge community of James City County are “concerned” that a proposed solar farm will impact their neighborhood negatively.

The James City County planning commission approved in April an application to build a solar farm on a 225-acre property on Farmville Lane. The developer, California-based SunPower, said that the lane would have to be widened and trees removed in order for trucks to be able to turn properly.

Residents expressed concerns about traffic and noise said Amanda Beringer, who organized a neighborhood meeting to educate neighbors. “As we did more research and watched the planning commission meeting we realized a lot of people didn’t know about the proposal.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Well, if someone proposed a major construction project near where I lived, I’d want to know more about it, too. So the Norge neighbors can’t be criticized for wanting to learn more about the project. But if concern morphs into opposition, I’ll have “concerns” of my own, but entirely different ones. I’ll be concerned how NIMBYs inevitably arise to block any kind of energy-related project in Virginia, be it electric transmission lines, gas pipelines, wind turbines or even solar farms that hum quietly behind hedges while — outside the construction phase — creating little traffic or human activity of any kind. Some energy projects are intrusive and resistance is understandable. But opposition to solar projects is incomprehensible to me.

Look, people, solar energy is coming. Dominion and Appalachian Power have both announced commitments to massive increases in solar generation over the next 25 years. While some of that solar capacity will be small-scale, distributed rooftop solar panels, most of it will be utility-scale solar farms like the one SunPower wants to build. Leasing land to a  power company is great news for suburban and exurban landowners struggling to make ends meet in farming, and the tax benefits to localities are significant — even after taking into account the 80% discount on property tax assessments.

Local governments across Virginia need to get proactive and update their zoning codes and comprehensive plans to prepare for the upcoming solar bonanza. They need to work out potentially conflicting issues ahead of time. The quicker solar projects sail through the regulatory process, the more that will get built to the benefit of all.

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15 responses to “Please, Norge, Don’t Go NIMBY on Solar Project

  1. I have little patience with most NIMBY opinion. But larger scale and highly visible solar projects standing naked over fertile land in plain view of passerby’s on public roads turn me NIMBY quick.

    Here, in my neck of the woods there are two such naked as a Jay Bird solar projects – one on an acre, another on 15 or 2o. Both could easily be shielded from public view. Why are they not?

    The arrogance of one person imposing these ugly scenes on everyone else passing should be outlawed. Particularly so since the fix is obvious and practical. And the suffers have no choice but to use the public road, and the right to do so. Why are people so thoughtless? The likely answer is they don’t give a damn.

    • Amen. Again, it is not “NIMBY” and I have correct the author on this point before…to oppose a rezoning or amendment to the comprehensive land. That is an abuse of language.

      NIMBY is opposing by-right projects. Rezonings and amendments to the comp plan are supposed to be subject to neighbor objections. What Mr. Bacon’s use of the term NIMBY really is…..is “you don’t have a right to govern yourselves, any opposition to any energy venture is NIMBYism no matter how much it violates the zoning ordinance and comprehensive plan.”

      This attitude is as anti-democratic as you can get. “Your laws and values as a community are worthless. I, the Dominion mouthpiece, should be able to tell you what to do and when to do it no matter your community’s democratically approved ordinances and comp plan.”

      • LocalGovGuy, You have a very narrow definition of NIMBY. Mine is “Not In My Back Yard” — people opposing any project that they perceive might negatively effect them, based on the assumption that because they were there first, their rights not to be bothered trumps the rights of other property owners to do things with their property.

        How is my attitude anti-Democratic? Have I squelched the NIMBYs right to voice their opposition? Have I squelched their right to appear in public hearings and petition local government officials? No, I’ve simply suggested that local governments go through the established democratic process of revising their comprehensive plans and zoning codes to make it easier to build solar projects.

        Please, please tell me how that’s anti-democratic!

        • The baseline of a community is its established zoning ordinance and comprehensive plan. Therefore, supporting the established zoning ordinance and comprehensive plan is not NIMBYism. It is simply a reflection of a locality’s land use policies.

          What you are trying to do is turn the world upside down with a perverted view of public policy. Anyone who comes in trying to change the established policies and laws are the “good guys” even though their actions violate the already established laws and policies. Anyone who tries to defend the established laws and policies are the “bad guys” simply for asking that the law be honored.

          The devious game that you are playing is the following: A zoning ordinance is the law. Any request for a rezoning is a request to amend the law. You are portraying rezonings as by-right. You are portraying the situation as, “these people are trying to stop Dominion (or fill in the blank of your other mouthpiecing clients) from exercising its ‘rights.'” That is completely backwards. Dominion is trying to come in and change the law so that it may do something special that is not authorized by law as a by right use. You portray all opposition as NIMBYism when in reality those people are simply defending the locality’s laws and policies.

          Why don’t you call Dominion a NIMBY when legislators actually try to hold it accountable? Dominion doesn’t like others playing in its bought and paid for neighborhood…the Virginia General Assembly. Game. Set. Match. I win. You lose. Thanks for playing.

          • TooManyTaxes

            A zoning ordinance and a Comp Plan are not intended to be set in stone. They need to change with changes in society, technology, economics and the like. But at the same time, asking that development be consistent with the rules and the Comp Plan doesn’t strike me as being a NIMBY per se.

            When one is seeking changes in zoning and/or a Comp Plan, any negative impacts caused by the changes should be covered by proffers. It’s not unreasonable for the solar park developer to use plantings and other actions to screen the site from neighborhood views after construction. And steps should be taken to minimize the impact on neighbors from construction.

          • LocalGovGuy,

            Unfortunately, developers of energy projects can often provide misleading information to get the zoning decisions that they desire.

            To get a special use permit to build the ACP compressor station in Buckingham County, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline claimed that it was a “utility” in order to qualify for an exemption to build on agricultural land (which was only available to utilities). The Atlantic Coast Pipeline is not a “utility” in Virginia. The ACP accurately claimed that they were not a “utility” in their application for an air quality permit for the compressor station. This allowed them to meet less stringent air quality requirements.

            I hope the creation of “facts” to obtain a desired outcome or win an argument will diminish, but it seems to be getting worse.

            Projects should be approved on their merits with accurate facts available for all to review and comment upon. Although, that seems to be an increasingly obsolete, old-school way of thinking.

        • My definition of NIMBY matches Jim’s. Also, these two particular projects that I described were NOT done by Dominion Power.

  2. correction to 3rd to last sentence. “The sufferers of this visual abuse have no choice but to use the public road, and the right to do so. Why should they have to endure easily remedied public eyesores?

  3. Can’t eat solar and many peeps would rather a farm to look at than solar rays.

    • Vicki, Well, maybe I don’t like the looks of your timberland after you’ve clear cut it. Do I have a right to forbid you from harvesting your trees?

      Maybe I don’t like the looks of your run-down barn. Maybe I don’t like the looks of your fish pond. Maybe I don’t like the look of that fence around your property. Haha! Maybe I don’t like the looks of the rusty cars you’ve got jacked up on cinderblocks in front of your house!

  4. I would like to add a slightly different perspective. I don’t argue with your central thesis. As you know, I believe that energy efficiency and renewables should comprise most of the future additions to our generating capacity.

    However, our current approach to solar in Virginia is an extension of a 100 year habit of developing a hub and spoke central station generation system. I don’t blame utilities for doing this. They get to add these new technology facilities to their rate base and also get paid to build the necessary transmission lines. Old habits die hard.

    It does miss out on one of the great advantages of solar, though. The ability to distribute small to moderate sized solar units on existing land uses such as public buildings, schools, hospitals, universities, commercial buildings, and industrial sites in ways that do not disrupt existing land uses. These developments are also likely to be able to tie into existing distribution lines without the need for new transmission lines, with their associated costs and disruptions.

    Smaller units do cost a bit more than larger ones per kW. But the utility-scale units do not include the cost of the necessary transmission so the cost comparisons are considerably skewed. By widely distributing smaller generation sources we increase the resiliency and reliability of the grid.

    We have created this problem because we are still using a 20th century regulatory scheme to develop a 21st century energy system. Why should a utility get to add a solar unit developed by a third-party to its rate base? The cost of the risk of developing the facility is already priced into the developer’s cost. The utility is adding no value that would not accrue with a PPA. Why should the ratepayers pay the utility an extra 10% return for no added value?

    Of course, it would not be fair to utilities to remove a source of revenue for them without providing another way for them to make money. This is why many states are developing new regulatory schemes. We need to get started on this in Virginia.

    I am not familiar with the details of this project. It is hard to imagine a 225 acre site in the middle of a neighborhood. I’m sure with full disclosure and a willingness to deal with community concerns, this can all be sorted out. But I would recommend a different approach in the future.

    Some states have gone so far as to mandate a specified balance between the amount of distributed solar and utility-scale solar. If we removed the incentives for utilities to own most of the solar and allowed them to send a price signal, such as a Value of Solar tariff that identifies where distributed solar would have the most value to the grid, the market will select the best choices.

  5. If you want NIMBY .. AND No Local Control look no further than the practice of applying “biosolids” on farmland. The locality cannot deny it in Virginia. The state controls the process.

    so.. if I were a farmer who wanted solar and was running into NIMBY – I’d withdraw the solar application and put in one for contracting with a company to spread sludge…

  6. TooManyTaxes,

    I agree that a Comp Plan and Zoning Ordinance shouldn’t be set in stone. Virginia requires comp plans to be updated every 5 years. A good locality will update their zoning ordinance in coordination with the comp plan.

    If a locality wants to change its comp plan and zoning ordinance as part of this 5 year process, that’s fine. But I think it is beyond disingenuous to act like those seeking amendments to the comp plan/zoning ordinance in those intervening years are just “people trying to exert their rights” and their opponents are “NIMBYs.”

    TomH

    I am aware of the process you mention. The energy companies are bad, the homebuilders are worse….there used to be a certain economist who just happened to pop up in NoVa at various land use hearings and….magically…..his analysis, paid for by the developers, always showed what an economic benefit the proposed development would create for the community……Will there always be a temporary economic benefit to construction? Sure. But, what about the long term effects on schools, police, infrastructure, etc.?

  7. It’s ironic that they want to build this solar plant on the Peninsula right in that same load pocket that the huge transmission line across the James is also intended to alleviate. The grid already needs the generation in that area, and more transmission too. Yet here’s one relatively benign facility that’s proposed and the neighbors don’t want any disturbance of their local “lane.” Change happens! What part of “a stronger electric grid is a necessary consequence of James City County’s explosive growth” don’t they understand?

    • While I fully support the neighbors’ right to advocate that the zoning ordinance and Comp Plan be followed without being attacked as NIMBYs, this reminds of the several times I’ve seen parents argue against allowing a cell tower at a high or middle school campus because of radiation, even as virtually everyone of their children have cell phones and use them constantly.

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