Beaver Hills Golf Course in Collinsville will not be transformed into a solar farm.
That was the final word from the Henry County Board of Zoning Appeals on Tuesday when its members unanimously denied a special-use permit requested by the owners and prospective developers who were seeking to convert the 75-year-old golf course into a 120-acre solar facility that would have produced enough power to supply 4,000 homes.
“I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t, at the very least, give you my professional opinion ... and I can’t say covering that property with solar panels for the next 40 years would be the highest and best use of that property,” said Lee Clark, the county’s director of planning, zoning and inspection.
The plan as presented by developers is similar to plans approved for the former Bassett Country Club and the city of Martinsville is negotiating with the former Lynwood Golf and Country Club.
Clark began the meeting by asking James Trull Jr., a supporter for the Beaver Hills Golf Course, to leave.
“Sir, since you’re not actually the applicant or the party that’s the tenant or leasee, according to the governor’s order, we can only have 10 people, so I’m going to have to ask you to leave,” Clark said. “I’ve got your comments and will be reading them.”
Clark already had issued notice that no public comments would be taken during the meeting because of the COVID-19 requirements and anyone wishing to make comment would need to either leave a voicemail with his office or send an email.
Clark then read, verbatim, nine emails and transcribed voicemails of those that had commented.
Michael Crawley with Crawley Professional Engineers, a contractor with the project, wrote in favor of a solar farm.
NCRE, a North Carolina solar developer and applicant for the “White Stripe” project at Beaver Hills, also spoke in favor of converting the golf course into a solar farm.
Andrew Palmer, a commercial leasing manager for The Lester Group, wrote that William McLawhorn, operator of the golf course, was unable to make it as “golf play has continued to decline” and asked the board to approve the special-use permit.
Tommy Slaughter owns the former Beaver Hills Early Learning Center property that is near the entrance to Beaver Hills Golf Course and is also the Reed Creek District representative on the Henry County Board of Supervisors.
“This is a terrible use of valuable property, but I guess it’s no need to say anything, because George Lester will get his way,” Slaughter said in a voicemail. “This is one of the worst things I’ve seen him [Lester] come up with.”
George Lester is a co-owner in the corporation that owns the land where Beaver Hills Golf Course is located.
Other comments were personal and derogatory toward Lester, but Clark read them aloud and for the record, nonetheless.
Joe Bryant is the Collinsville District representative on the Board of Supervisors, the same district in which the proposed solar farm would be built.
“I’m opposed,” Bryant wrote. “I feel this proposed project will not provide revenue and can be used for more profitable land usage.”
Trull’s letter was read while he waited outside the doors where the meeting was being held.
“I strongly oppose the closing of Beaver Hills Golf Course for a solar farm,” Trull wrote. “Although the owners are fully in the right to do so, shutting the course down will leave those of us with small to average incomes with no place to golf.”
Kings Grant Retirement officials, whose facility abuts the property, wrote that they had concerns about a promise from the developer to address a drainage issue on adjoining property but had not seen a proposed solution.
More than anything, Kings Grant officials said many residents in their retirement community enjoyed golfing at Beaver Hills because they could walk to the golf course and didn’t have to drive.
Clark also said that multiple pages of signatures under the title “Save Beaver Hills Golf” also were submitted.
Clark explained that his opposition to the solar project had nothing to do with a 1-year lease McLawhorn has with the property owners, which is set to expire at the end of the year.
“Agreements, leases, anything of the sort, we don’t have input in that—we don’t have a dog in that hunt,” Clark said. “Where I see the county does have the right and the responsibility to look at this from a land use perspective and in my opinion—this 120 acres of property is already zoned commercial, it’s got 100 feet of frontage along Kings Mountain Road—easily the premier road in this part of the county.”
Clark said the Beaver Hills property is “surrounded by sewer, water, power and primed for development.”
“In a perfect world, I would be a developer and say this is the perfect property for mixed-use development,” Clark said. “Townhouses, single-use dwellings, offices—the synergy is obvious when you look at these developments in other areas—it’s perfectly suited for that.”
Clark explained the section of code board members were to defend and protect.
“Section 21210, subtitle 3 of the zoning ordinance says you are not to impede the development of surrounding property,” Clark said. “That would be the reason if I were making a legal argument—that this does not meet the criteria for a special use permit.”
Board member Manker Stone moved to deny the application, and the motion was seconded by Lynwood Turner.
Stone, Turner and board members Paul Setliff and Sandra Adams voted against the special-use permit. Board member Robert Clark was absent.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” McLawhorn said after the hearing had ended. “I don’t know if they [Beaver Hills Development Corporation] are going to work with me.”
Palmer has accused McLawhorn of defaulting on payment of rent for the past four months and said he intends to pursue the matter in court next month.
McLawhorn said Tuesday he had not defaulted in paying rent but that his rent payments were being refused by the owners.
“I took a one-year lease because I didn’t know if I was going to be able to make it work,” McLawhorn said. “Now that we’re beginning to make it, they are the ones that want out of the deal.”
McLawhorn said he would be agreeable to sitting down with Palmer and working out a long-term lease agreement that would provide him an opportunity to realize a return on his investment.
Palmer, who was present at the hearing, left upon its conclusion and was not immediately available for comment.
Bill Wyatt is a reporter for the Martinsville Bulletin. He can be reached at 276-638-8801, Ext. 236. Follow him @billdwyatt.