Solar: Managing the tension between land use and tax revenue | Local News
The Pittsylvania County Planning Commission’s filing this month of the Firefly solar farm application highlights the tension between a community’s concern about its impact and the county’s need to benefit from the additional revenue that these projects can now provide for necessary capital projects such as a new jail and a new courthouse.
Legislation passed by the General Assembly last year provided another taxation option for solar projects, called revenue sharing, which allows counties to collect more tax revenue on projects approved after January 1, 2021.
With more than 18 solar farms in operation or in the process of being approved, the supervisory board last year made the necessary changes to its ordinance, which would allow it to receive the additional tax revenue. Under the old system, the county collected machinery and tools and property taxes on solar farms, which are lower than what is available under the revenue-sharing option, according to the county spokesperson. of Pittsylvania, Caleb Ayers.
It also made some changes to address concerns about solar farms and their visual impact, such as increasing plant buffer zones from 15 to 100 feet, Ayers said.
However, of those 18 projects, the revenue-sharing option would only apply to the three newest solar parks currently underway, as well as any future projects, Ayers said.
For the three site agreements approved in December, the county will receive approximately $42 million in tax revenue over the life of the projects, with a combination of upfront and annual payments. If the county was still working with the machinery and tools model, that number would be closer to $10 million for those three projects, Ayers said.
The lifespan of a solar farm is about 30 years.
Jail and courthouse
The extra solar revenue is to be used for capital projects and is being considered to help build a new jail and courthouse, Ayers said.
The Pittsylvania County Jail was built in 1981 and “the day they opened it was 100 percent overcrowded,” Sheriff Mike Taylor said.
The jail is designed for 36 inmates, but is chronically over capacity, Taylor said, adding that if the population exceeds 120 people, they have a sharing agreement with the Blue Ridge Regional Jail to deal with the overflow.
Taylor recommends building a 150-200 bed facility and that is estimated at $18-20 million. Of that cost, the state can contribute 25%, but the county must go to the General Assembly for that, Taylor said.
Taylor also wants room for additional programs, like a space for inmates to get a GED. Another concern is the facility’s aging infrastructure, from locks to elevator parts that are so old the manufacturer no longer supports them, Taylor said, adding that it’s becoming a security concern.
“If you have 100 incorrigibles looking to damage the building or get out, you can imagine. It’s in a constant state of repair,” he said.
The county is looking for a 7 to 15 acre parcel to set up a new jail, Ayers said.
The other building to be replaced is the iconic county courthouse, located on Main Street in Chatham.
The neo-classical, Italianate style courthouse was built in 1853. The clerk’s office was extended in 1898, court-related offices were added in 1927, and a rear addition for the Commonwealth Attorney’s Office was added in 1968. In recent years an annex to the courthouse has been attached.
Currently, security and technology are definitely two of the shortcomings of the current Pittsylvania County courthouse. However, the main problem is that the building is extremely undersized considering all of the judicial departments and functions housed there, Ayers said.
“The building is undersized for its current occupancy load and the large number of departments in it,” he said.
According to the Virginia Code, the court can order the construction of a new prison, as well as a courthouse.
Over the past 20 years, this process has been used in a number of communities, including Rockbridge County, Williamsburg/James City County, Dickenson County and the City of Portsmouth, in accordance with Palace Facilities guidelines of justice of Virginia.
It’s a situation the county would rather avoid because it’s financially better for Pittsylvania County to handle large capital projects like this on its own schedule that meets its needs, Ayers said.
“The more time is running out, the more difficult it would be to get favorable funding,” he said.
Ayers said a new courthouse, currently estimated at $49 million, would likely be built where the Pittsylvania County School’s current administrative offices are located. The existing courthouse could then be used for those offices, as well as community development, planning and zoning, the treasurer and revenue commissioner said Ayers, adding that the cost of renovating the existing courthouse is estimated at around $14 million.
The new courthouse would include a circuit court, a general district court and a juvenile and domestic relations court, as well as the clerk of the court and the Commonwealth solicitor, Ayers said.
“All court-related offices should be in the new courthouse,” he said.
While revenue from future solar projects can help fund those projects, the county would still have to issue bonds for the cost and those would have to be approved by voters through the referendum process, Ayers said.
The jail’s timeline is estimated to be 2026, followed by the courthouse and new county offices in 2031.
“Explosive” growth of solar
Meanwhile, the “explosive” growth of solar farms has become a concern, Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors Chairman Vic Ingram said, adding that their proliferation is not limited to that county.
Of the 18 solar farms, either operational or in the planning stages, the actual panels will occupy more than 10,500 acres in Pittsylvania County, according to information provided by county staff.
Ingram said he understands the tension between farmers and landowners looking for a diverse stream of income on their land and the need for renewable energy with residents who are appalled to see a solar farm come up next door. of their house where they have invested their savings.
Ingram believes landowners have the right to develop their property and that a moratorium on solar projects “crosses a line”.
Westover District Supervisor Ron Scearce also promotes property rights, especially for farmers looking for ways to make better use of their land so they can stay in business. While Scearce doesn’t think solar panels “are the most beautiful thing in the world,” he does think the county has taken steps to enact buffer zones and other measures to address the visual impact of the farms.
For Scearce, future revenue generated from solar farms is a way to help meet county needs and further reduce the burden on taxpayers.
“That’s the number one reason to go,” he said.
While Ingram looks forward to the additional revenue from the new taxation option, he also thinks the Council should start a conversation about the future of solar power in the county and perhaps come up with a formula to slow down or limit the process.
“We don’t want the county landscape to look like a solar farm,” he said.