Richmond Township solar project

A solar project proposed for these 100 acres at Weaver Road and Fleetwood-Lyons Road in Richmond Township has been turned down by township supervisors.

Richmond Township supervisors rejected a proposal on Monday that would have allowed a solar panel project to move forward. 

The supervisors voted 3-0 to deny an amendment to the township zoning ordinance. The proposal would have changed a parcel of the Heffner farm from agriculture to light industrial.

About a third of the 109-acre farmstead along the Fleetwood-Lyons Road is zoned for agriculture. Ronald and Dennis Heffner sought to change it to light industrial to accommodate a solar panel project. Solar panels are not allowed on land zoned for agriculture.

Belltown Power, a renewable energy company headquartered in the United Kingdom, has a lease option to build a solar array on the Heffners' land at Weaver and Fleetwood-Lyons Roads.

Belltown calls the project The Lyons Solar Farm, which would generate electricity to power 3,500 homes through solar photovoltaic solar panels with a generating capacity of approximately 20 megawatts.

About 40 people attended the meeting at Virginville Fire Company, said supervisors Chairman Brian Wanner. Four spoke on the project.

Ronald Heffner said he does not know what course of action would be next.

"It seems like we got shot down last night," Heffner said on Tuesday. "This would have meant saving the family farm. Now it looks like it could go a different direction. It opens up other avenues now."

He did not say what other avenues could be taken. 

Wanner said the company, on behalf of the property owners, could seek a change through the zoning hearing board. 

In an email statement, Belltown development manager Ed Perrin said the company is disappointed.

"Belltown is disappointed in the decision not to grant the rezoning of the parcel to make it consistent with the local and county comprehensive plans, which would allow the whole tract to be used for solar energy," Perrin wrote. "Solar energy is a tremendous opportunity for farmers and rural communities, and is a use that municipalities all across the state of Pennsylvania are being encouraged to support."

He said the company will reevaluate the next steps for this project while it remains "eager for the opportunity to partner with the community to bring increased tax revenue, economic activity, and locally produced energy."

Neighbor Jodi Gauker, who co-owns a ninth-generation farm with her husband, Lee, had raised questions about zoning light industrial an area of prime agricultural land with high quality Duffield soils. After the meeting, Gauker said she was glad the land will remain zoned agriculture for now. 

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

In addition to the Heffners' land, Belltown has lease options on two tracts totaling 80 acres in Jefferson Township along New Schaefferstown Road and Bernville Road.

Perrin had previously said there are no immediate plans to move forward with the projects in Jefferson Township. There is pending legislation in the state 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 a Penn State Extension webinar.

The state has 9,827 megawatts in the pipeline.

Belltown is not the only company trying to develop solar farms in Berks.

According to county property records, another solar developer, Glidepath Ventures LLC of Ardmore, Montgomery County, has entered into lease options for farmland in Perry, Richmond and Maidencreek townships.

Three of the parcels, totaling 143 acres, are owned by the Heffner family in Richmond and Maidencreek. Another parcel in Perry is a 243-acre farm owned by Quail Ridge LLC of Myerstown.  

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