The proposed Maroon Solar power plant that would connect with the Dominion transmission line on relatively remote farm and timberland in southern Culpeper moves to its first review by the county Planning Commission this Thursday. There is already much to consider from various perspectives.
According to Maroon’s developer, Strata Solar of Durham, N.C., the 149-megawatt, $200 million project will infuse tax money and jobs into the community.
Strata employs 400 professional staff and has built solar projects in Virginia with Dominion. Five projects are under construction and 10 projects are under development around the state, including Maroon Solar. In business for 12 years, the company has projects in North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Washington and California.
“If we are not the biggest developer and solar construction company in Virginia, we probably will be soon,” Strata project developer Louis Iannone said in a recent Zoom conference with the Culpeper Star-Exponent.
But according to a months-long analysis by the Culpeper County Planning Department, the project—while perhaps well-sited—is too big and proposed to be built too fast to maintain the area’s rural nature.
A growth industry
Maroon Solar’s fields would be bounded by Algonquin Trail, Mount Pony Road and Raccoon Ford, southeast of Winston. There would be no access to the site from Algonquin Trail, but would be from the other two roads.
The company says its project stands alone and will benefit local residents.
Solar is a growth industry in rural Virginia, Iannone said in the recent briefing with Strata development consultant Dave Stoner. Iannone emphasized that his company’s project is not like previous solar proposals in Culpeper.
“Ours is just fundamentally different from the other two big projects that have come before us and that generated all of the opposition,” he said. “We hope the community will see that we’re just different from those.”
Several utility-scale projects proposed for Culpeper County in the past several years have not materialized due to residents’ opposition and government scrutiny, including the 730-acre Greenwood project a few miles north that was litigated after neighbors sued and now has seen its conditional-use permit expire. Pending state legislation could automatically extend Greenwood’s permit as the Board of Supervisors discussed Tuesday in closed session.
As the Virginia Clean Energy Act encourages creation of more solar and other renewable-energy sources across the state, Culpeper supervisors continue to refine the county’s rules for the large solar projects knocking on its door.
The Board of Supervisors is considering requiring solar developers, which are mostly out of state, to request rezoning of their sites from agricultural to industrial use. This would be in addition to the multi-step approval process for a conditional-use permit.
For and against
Pushback against industrial-scale solar plants on rural lands near Civil War battlefields and the Rapidan River continues from residents living near the proposed sites. There also has been opposition from conservationists advocating for historical, cultural and natural resources, as well as Citizens for Responsible Solar, founded by Algonquin Trail resident Susan Ralston.
Iannone said the local resistance, “I’ve done this in four states. I have never seen anything like the opposition in Culpeper.”
Other landowners, including some farmers—standing to benefit from land leases or sale of their property—support the solar projects for the environmental and economic benefits. To curb global warming, the state will require Dominion, Virginia’s largest utility—to generate all of its power using renewable sources by 2050. Electricity from solar arrays is considered among the most affordable generation methods.
“It’s one of the lowest-cost sources of energy today, and there is a lot of interest from the big data-center companies,” Iannone said. “They all want renewable energy. A lot of companies want to be 100 percent renewable, but they wouldn’t want to be if it wasn’t cost-effective, and solar has become very cost-effective.”
Iannone said Maroon Solar is different because its Culpeper project would be invisible from roads and “all hidden behind trees.” The property to be leased measures about 1,700 acres. It was in timber production for decades, and most of the land has been clearcut, he said.
Pardee Virginia Timber 2 LLC owns about 75 percent of the site. It appears to be a subsidiary of Philadelphia-based Pardee Resources, a multi-state natural resources, energy management and investment company.
Four other local landowners are involved with the project, which Strata hopes to start building by the end of 2021 and have operating by 2022.
Maroon Solar will avoid historic sites and prime farmland, Iannone said.
“We’ve tried to listen and watch the county and citizens as other projects have been debated,” he said, acknowledging Culpeper’s history.
Maroon will build its solar plant more than a mile from federally designated “core battlefield” at Morton’s Ford and Raccoon Ford on the Rapidan, Iannone said.
“Battlefield study areas”—identified by the congressionally chartered Civil War Sites Advisory Commission—abut the project site, Iannone said. A quarter mile of replanted pines will buffer the historic sites from the plant, he said.
“There is no actual visibility of our project site from our project because there is timber in between except for maybe one resident near the planned substation on Raccoon Ford Road,” Iannone said.
County staff says the plant would minimally impact historic resources as there are no designated or currently identified areas of historic interest or historic structures on the plant property.
Maroon’s solar panels, limited to 18 feet in height, will be installed in rows with 10- to 15-feet strips between them that will be planted with a grass mix for ground cover. The site’s gently rolling topography will minimize grading, Iannone said.
He said he could not estimate how many panels would be placed on the land. That will change as technology advances and panels get smaller as the project, if approved, is built more than a year from now, Iannone said.
Culpeper staff recommends a $10 million bond to ensure the project’s equipment is properly removed after its 40-year lifespan.
Planning Director Sam McLearen, in the analysis going to the Planning Commission, said staff could not recommend the project as proposed because it does not conform to the county’s Utility Scale Solar Policy.
“It is the contention of the current applicant that this site is ‘appropriate’ for multiple reasons,” the staff report states. “Staff concurs with many of these points, but nevertheless ultimate conformance with the Comprehensive Plan is debatable mainly because of the large size and scale of the proposed facility.”
Natural buffers will minimize the plant’s visual impacts to neighboring properties, and help maintain the area’s rural character, McLearen said.
If Culpeper officials approve the proposal, staff recommended approving the site layout.
The county’s policy states that to preserve rural viewsheds and address community character and concerns with land disturbance, landscaping, traffic and other impacts during construction, large solar projects should be limited to 300 acres of panels.
The main reason Maroon Solar gave for exceeding that threshold is financial, the staff report states.
Staff strongly recommended limiting mass grading on the site to 50 acres at a time. Maroon’s application indicates phased areas as large as 453 acres.
In its review, the Culpeper Soil & Water Conservation District agreed with county planners’ view on that point, saying that Maroon shouldn’t disturb more than 50 acres at a time during construction “to limit potential widespread erosion impacts.”
The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality will review Maroon’s land-disturbance plan. It is the state agency that would issue a general stormwater-runoff permit for the development.
$10M in revenue
Stoner, with Maroon Solar, said the plant’s equipment will be relatively nonobtrusive, generating no noise, glare or light from solar panels. “There’s really no health, safety or environmental concerns,” he said.
The company puts a lot of effort into stormwater management to minimize erosion, sedimentation and runoff off-site, Stoner said.
Once its plant is operational, Maroon Solar will open an office in Culpeper and employ about a dozen full-time employees, including fairly high-tech maintenance positions, plus site-maintenance workers.
The company estimates Culpeper will get $10 million in revenue and tax benefit from the plant.
Maroon Solar estimates its facility will generate electricity equivalent to that needed to power 25,000 homes.
For the plant, Strata Solar LLC assembled 13 parcels three miles southeast of State Route 3 and State Route 522. The land is bisected by Dominion’s Remington-to-Gordonsville transmission line, which would feed the electrical grid.
Solar power plants proposed in that area would feed Northern Virginia’s burgeoning and power-hungry data centers, providing renewable energy much desired by “green” companies such as Amazon and Google.
Iannone said Maroon’s solar plant will improve the land.
“Go out and look at the site after it’s been clear-cut—not a real pretty site right now,” he said. “I can assure you that at the end of this project’s life, it’s going to be returned in better condition than it’s in right now.”
During the plant’s construction, noise impacts could be quite significant, county planners said, so that work will be restricted from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Residents’ views will be heard at Thursday’s Planning Commission meeting in Eastern View High School’s auditorium.
The public, including Raccoon Ford Road resident Dex Sanders, has already submitted written comments. Sanders asked the supervisors to immediately stop considering large-scale solar plants until Culpeper determines—with the public—how and where such sun-harnessing power plants would be in the best, long-term interests of the county.
“Then, allow developers to creatively work within our vision for the County, rather than allowing ourselves to be directed by outside development interests,” Sanders wrote.
Raccoon Ford property owner John Young wrote that his land is a few hundred feet “from the massive solar facility and substation.” Young said he had hoped to maintain the family tradition of camping on the land, and had considered building a small cabin there.
“However, if 960 acres of solar panels are installed in my backyard, that is supposed to be zoned for agricultural use, who is going to want to use my property as recreational land or as a potential home site?” he wrote.
Mount Pony Road property owner Willie Crenshaw Sr. urged approval of Maroon Solar, saying the plant’s development is a property-rights issue that will create local jobs, be good for the economy and make effective use of the timberland site.
“The proposed solar project is unobtrusive, properly located and includes proper setbacks and vegetative buffers, in many areas exceeding county requirements,” Crenshaw wrote. “Given that, it will not disrupt the rural nature of the area nor impact the enjoyment of the surrounding properties.”
Latest from Strata
Asked to comment on the staff’s emphasis on the county’s 50-acre guideline for land clearing and limiting the project’s size to 300 acres, Iannone said on Friday that Culpeper’s Utility Scale Solar Policy “sets the most restrictive solar control goals the Strata Solar team has encountered in at least five states, and appears to have been adopted in response to negative concerns with previous projects.”
He said impacts from any land disturbance can be safely managed, as Strata has done many times before in Virginia.
“To the extent that there is concern with a lack of county resources to monitor the project, the Strata Solar team is willing to fund additional staff for review, inspection, and enforcement,” Iannone said.
He asked the Board of Supervisors and Planning Commission “to balance the temporary construction inconvenience against landowner rights and a major capital investment in the county” that Iannone said would have no permanent negative impact.