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Commission can't agree on Smith Mountain Lake snafu, gives go-ahead to Gretna solar farm


CHATHAM, Va. - At a routine meeting Tuesday night, the Pittsylvania County Planning Commission approved recommendation of one special use permit but failed to agree on another.

The planning commission first approved the recommendation of a special use permit to the Board of Zoning Appeals for a solar project in Gretna spearheaded by IPS Solar, one of the oldest solar power companies at over 30 years in business with 92 projects active in some stage across the commonwealth.

The special use permit is for one parcel of land on East Gretna Road spanning 62 acres of land.

"While it's called a utility-scale project, it's not the same as the thousands or hundreds of acres used by other projects," said IPS Solar representative Scott Aaronson. "It's called community solar. The idea is that subscribers subscribe in exchange for bill credits, for people who can't finance their own solar panels. The town is very excited for it."

At the recommendation of Commissioner Janet Mease (Callands-Gretna), that motion was approved with seven votes in favor and one abstention. Although IPS has not visited or sent letters to any adjacent landowners, the project is capped at five megawatts, which gives the project significant buffer area seeing as the average project with the same power output is on a parcel averaging half the acreage at 30-40 acres, Aaronson said.

Addressing the concern of gaining customers, Aaronson responded, "Gathering customers is actually an easier part of the process. The customer process starts after building. They just sign up."

Mease praised IPS Solar's proposal, saying, "In the little Town of Gretna, we all need something like this. I'm very impressed with the level of detail you shared with the board."

The next case facing the board, however, did not end so smoothly. The Dock at SML, LLC petitioned for a special use permit on four parcels of land totaling 23.25 acres of land at Smith Mountain Road and Locust Lane in Pittsylvania County's northwest barrier with Franklin and Bedford Counties at Smith Mountain Lake.

"We fell in love with this property," partial owner Jeff Wilson said. "We really liked the quaint feel of Smith Mountain Dock and Lodge. You see three generations of families down there looking at carp, feeding the fish, taking a boat out. The marina has been there over 60 years. Our interest was to clean up some of the operations. After cleanup work, we want to bring it back to life."

Wilson and his cohorts identified a serious need for covered boat storage in this area. Eyeing the frontage for boat storage necessitated this hearing.

Four Locust Lane residents came forward with a common plea. Locust Lane is not a state-maintained road. Neighbors on that lane, which is not paved but instead layered with crush-and-run gravel, recently pooled together $30,000 in private money for repairs.

"Locust Lane is the issue," neighbor Ronald Root said. "Locust Lane has deteriorated seriously. It's almost too dangerous to drive on it."

The other three neighbors agreed, citing damage to vehicles and impassable conditions.

According to local residents, before going bankrupt, former owners of the Smith Mountain Lake marina would routinely aid in road maintenance. With the recent change of hands and an upcoming influx in construction and commercial vehicles passing the road to either build or later access the new businesses Wilson and company have planned, Locust Lane homeowners wanted to see an agreement that The Dock at SML, LLC would pay for road maintenance or acquiesce and use a public roadway for entry to the property instead.

After an hour of discussion and argument, Mease made a motion to approve recommendation to the Board of Zoning Appeals, but with the condition that commercial vehicles utilize State Road 626 (Smith Mountain Road) instead of Locust Lane for entry to the property. That motion was followed by more than a full minute of deafening silence as none of the six other commissioners were willing to offer a second. No one made an alternative motion.

At this unique and somewhat rare impasse, Pittsylvania County Attorney J. Vaden Hunt informed the board that they would have 60 days to reach a decision or else the petition would be approved automatically. It was at that juncture that a motion was made to table the topic until the board's May meeting, a motion that would pass with seven votes in favor of tabling and one abstention.

Wilson and the Locust Lane homeowners, the ones who spoke at the meeting comprising many of the handful who live at the lake full-time and not seasonally, will have to reach some compromise by the next meeting or, as Hunt said, "It's back to the drawing board."


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