Newport News City Council denies School Board’s request for ground-mounted solar panels

Jessica Nolte, The Daily Press
·6 min read

The Newport News School Board asked City Council for conditional use permits to install solar arrays at Saunders Elementary School and Hines Middle School. The panels and installation would be free, and using solar would reduce each school’s power bill.

The City Council said no.

The School Board’s request was denied Tuesday night on a 3-4 vote. Council members David Jenkins, Marcellus Harris III and Tina Vick voted in support of the solar panels.

Mayor McKinley Price, Vice Mayor Saundra Cherry and Councilwoman Sharon Scott all said they were not opposed to solar panels including those on the rooftops of Newport News schools but did not support the school board’s request to install ground-mounted arrays. Councilwoman Patricia Woodbury repeated her opposition to solar power, saying she believes it is unsafe.

“I believe that the solar on the rooftops is fine. I have a problem with a 30-year commitment of taking land from our schools. I have a problem with the amount of vegetation that’s going to be removed to do this. I have a problem with some of the locations where it’s been wanting to be placed,” Price said.

Solar panels on the roof at Gatewood PEEP, a center that serves special-needs preschool students, have been activated. Solar arrays are also being installed on the rooftops at Lee Hall Elementary School, Heritage High School and the transportation office.

Cherry and Scott also shared a concern for the trees that would have to be removed to make room for the solar panels on the ground.

“We have this great opportunity for the schools to do some investment, but I just want to make sure that as we make these decisions concerning taking land and taking trees that we understand how important it is for us to have trees. We get into this conversation about over here it’s solar and that’s great, but over here we’re cutting down trees,” Cherry said.

Newport News School Superintendent George Parker III said in a Wednesday afternoon phone call the concerns about the trees were directed at the proposed location at Saunders Elementary School. About 1.5 acres in the southwest corner of the school’s 17.9-acre property would have been used for the array.

Parker said the School Board had initially requested placing the solar panels on a different part of the property, but the Planning Commission requested the location be moved to the area that would have required the trees to be removed.

“This was a decision that was made in collaboration with the city’s Planning Commission,” Parker said. “They approved the new location because that site would not be an obstruction to any school operations or future use.”

Councilman Jenkins argued in support of the solar panels Tuesday night, saying he thought that in the long run, the solar panels would offer more benefit than the trees that would have to be cut down. He said approving the ground-mounted solar arrays wouldn’t preclude efforts to continue planting trees around the city.

“In addition to whatever savings there may be, the addition of solar panels will help us reach a lower carbon footprint for our city and be good for our environment and make us more energy independent,” Jenkins said.

The ground-mounted solar panels project also had the support of the York River Group Sierra Club, which is a grassroots environmental organization. The club said the project would help the schools save money while reducing carbon emissions.

The solar panels would have been installed at the schools for free through a contract with SunTribe Solar. The schools would only need to pay if they requested to have the solar arrays removed before the end of the 30-year deal.

Parker said the schools estimated their initial savings would be about $8 million with the opportunity to expand the project — and the savings — during the next few years. At the City Council’s Nov. 24 work session, Newport News City Manager Cindy Rohlf told the council the schools were estimating $4 million in savings.

For Price, the savings weren’t enough to justify the space the ground-mounted panels would occupy.

“The amount of money over 30 years that you’re saving — when you amortize that and put it out over that time — it’s not a lot of money. So, to risk future potential development of a site on savings that I don’t think are that substantial is not a risk that I’m willing to take,” he said.

The schools are “not in the business of raising funds,” Parker said. They rely on the city and grants for funding.

“If all of our funding requests were being met, I would probably agree with the mayor; however, when we’re submitting requests for capital needs and other operational needs and sometimes those needs are not being met, I would dare say that any income we could save in terms of our energy costs that would benefit the school division to redirect those funds towards operations or capital needs of the school division would be of benefit to the city, our taxpayers and the school division,” Parker said.

At the City Council’s Nov. 24 council members were frustrated because they thought the School Board should have talked to them before signing the contract with SunTribe Solar.

Parker said the School Board followed protocol by working with the Planning Commission before bringing its request before the City Council. The school district did not need the council’s approval before signing the contract or installing solar panels on the rooftops because those are considered part of the school building.

The School Board was also working on requests for conditional use permit requests for ground-mounted solar arrays at Gildersleeve Middle School and carport arrays at Discovery STEM Academy and Yates Elementary School.

Price said Tuesday night he was not opposed to arrays that were installed over parking spaces in the schools’ parking lots.

“While we are somewhat disappointed in the vote, we’ll continue to press forward with the installation of solar panels on our roofs and we will be certainly willing to try again in the future to do some ground-mounted solar,” said School Board Chairman Douglas Brown.

The school district sought the permits because solar panels can’t be installed on the roofs of some schools — because the roof is too old to support the structures or faces the wrong way to capture sunlight.

“We’re not just doing solar for the sake of saving money. We’re looking at solar as a way of being more green — using green energy to support our schools. I think it benefits our community as a whole to look at our carbon footprint,” Parker said.

Staff writer Matt Jones contributed to this report.

Jessica Nolte, 757-912-1675, jnolte@dailypress.com