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Solar panel project proposed for Richmond Township getting a hearing | Berks and Beyond

At a meeting Monday, Richmond Township supervisors plan to discuss zoning changes for a solar panel project proposed for 100 acres of farmland along the Fleetwood-Lyons Road. 

Meanwhile, a neighbor has raised concerns about the project, citing the loss of prime farmland and other issues.  

The meeting is set for 7 p.m. at Virginville Fire Company and will mark the first time since the coronavirus shutdown in March that members of the public can be physically present at a supervisors meeting.

The supervisors have met in a closed building and not broadcast the proceedings as other municipalities have.

Residents could submit comments on agenda items prior to meetings but not attend them.

The public was informed of business conducted at the closed meetings via posting of draft minutes on the township website.

Many municipalities held meetings through internet conferencing software such as Zoom. The board said it followed the advice of its solicitor.

“We’re just a small township,” said Supervisor Brian Wanner. “We don’t have the technical ability.”

But, Wanner said, supervisors decided that the upcoming meeting should be held in public so people give opinions on the solar panel project. Face masks and social distance will be required. Wanner was not sure about the capacity for the fire company facility under social distancing guidelines.

“We’re going to go in and set up,” he said. “We’ll see how many we can fit.”

The issue at hand

Belltown Power, a renewable energy company headquartered in the United Kingdom, wants to build a solar array on 109 acres at Weaver and Fleetwood-Lyons Roads.

The company, according to Berks County property records, has an option to lease the land for 30 years. The land is owned by Ronald and Dennis Heffner.

Belltown optioned part of the Weaver Road tract and another Heffner tract on Krause Road in 2018. It dropped the Krause Road tract and picked up the full 109 acres last year.

But the Weavers Road property is in two zoning districts. About 57 is zoned light industrial, which permits solar panels, and part is zoned agricultural, which does not. The supervisors last month received a draft of zoning amendments to accommodate the project.

In Belltown’s promotional literature, the project is called The Lyons Solar Farm. It would generate power through solar photovoltaic solar panels with a generating capacity of approximately 20 megawatts.

“This would be enough to power approximately 3,500 homes a year, as well as saving around 12,500 tons of CO2 emissions per year,” the company said in its promotional brochure. “This is the equivalent of taking 2,700 cars off the road each year.”

Ed Perrin, development manager for Belltown, said the company’s plans for the Richmond Township site are on hold pending the zoning change that the property owner is pursuing with the township

 

He said a Belltown representative will be at the meeting to discuss the project more broadly.

 

Perrin noted that the land is identified in the county’s comprehensive plan as designated Economic Development Area.

 

It is near East Penn Manufacturing and Weaver’s Ace Hardware.

 

Belltown’s criteria for sites is that they are situated close to a viable connection to the electric grid; a zoning ordinance that allows for solar farms; a local and county comprehensive plan that identifies land for economic development; a large industrial energy user located close by and a landowner who supports Belltown’s dual use proposals and is a committed farmer.

‘Disruptive development’

A farm couple near the proposed project has raised questions about it. 

Jodi and Lee Gauker run an operation next to the proposed solar project. The farm is a nine-generation preserved 260-acre crop farm raising corn, soybeans, wheat, hay, and steers for beef. The family also operates a retail meat business.

In a letter to the supervisors, Jodi Gauker questioned how the property will be managed and how, or if, it will be returned to farmland after the lease is up. 

“I also have concerns about stray voltage that may or may not be created by the solar plant that would affect livestock at our neighboring farm,” Gauker said in the letter she shared with Reading Eagle

Gauker said she attended a Penn State Extension webinar about land use and solar development this summer. She questioned the long-term local benefits. 

“Jobs, then, that may be created are lawn care and sheep herdsman, both low-paying jobs,” Gauker wrote. “This is not effective job creation.”

She questioned whether the construction, excavation or installation jobs would be local.

Gauker mentioned a recent 400-acre solar farm that was built in Michigan. The project is projected to raise $4.5 million in school and county taxes over the 30 year life of the project.

“This project is one-quarter the size,” wrote Gauker, who is a member of Berks County Planning Commission. “And will most likely also have one-quarter of the revenue generation. Would we not better serve Richmond Township by creating an economic development committee, run by volunteers, that would be committed to raising funds through attracting projects to our township that actually fit the current zoning and needs of the township rather than hastily make zoning changes with 30-year impacts?”

Gauker noted the Duffield soils on the Weaver Road property are deep or very deep well-drained soils, and considered some of the highest producing nonirrigated soil in the United States.

“A vote to take this soil out of agriculture production by changing the zoning to light industrial indefinitely would be a vote against agriculture, and a vote, instead, for disruptive development,” Gauker wrote.

It could be worse?

Perrin said in an email that Belltown recognized some neighbors have concerns.

“The feedback we received from many in the community was that solar is a good use of the land vs. warehousing or a trucking terminal, both uses permitted in the zoning ordinance on this parcel,” Perrin said. “These uses would see the permanent loss of ag soils, increased impervious cover and significantly higher traffic movements. The solar project will not.”

He said Belltown was aware that some neighbors have concerns about the visual appearance of the project. The company is committed to incorporating screening and other landscaping into the project to ensure it is integrated into the rural environment.

“We are also committed to working with local farmers to ensure an agricultural use is maintained through the operational life of the project through grazing and pollinator habitat,” Perrin said.

The Weaver Road project is one of five Belltown projects in various stages of development in Pennsylvania, Perrin said. None have started construction.

Belltown has lease options on two tracts totaling 80 acres in Jefferson Township along New Schaefferstown Road and Bernville Road. Perrin said there are no immediate plans to move forward with the projects in Jefferson Township. There is pending legislation in the Pennsylvania House on community solar that could affect it, he said.

Solar plants or farms are expected to grow. Pennsylvania has 82 megawatts of built utility scale solar plants, said Sarah Mills, a senior project manager for Center for Local, State and Urban Policy at the University of Michigan, in the extension webinar.

The state has 9,827 megawatts in the pipeline. 

Perrin said opposition to the Richmond project was somewhat of a surprise. 

“We’re aware that solar is not a wide use in Pennsylvania,” he said, adding that he hopes to educate residents on how the project will be low impact and would not mean a loss of agricultural land.

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