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'Gettysburg' director comes out swinging against utility-scale power plants
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'Gettysburg' director comes out swinging against utility-scale power plants

Film director Ron Maxwell, creator of the big-screen epic “Gettysburg,” says utility-scale solar facilities proposed in the Piedmont jeopardize much that Virginians hold dear.

In an Aug. 1 letter to Culpeper supervisors, planning commissioners and residents, the Rappahannock County resident said he was writing “to bring to your attention the impending threat to Virginia’s rich history” of Cricket Solar’s proposed complex of perhaps 360,000 solar panels.

He warned that the 1,800-acre solar power plant will reduce heritage tourism in Culpeper County, mar scenic countryside, and impact nearby properties, including three antebellum homes along Algonquin Trail in Culpeper’s Raccoon Ford area—Greenville, Struan and Sumerduck.

“Besides being of dubious economic benefit, the proposed solar complex will sully the historic value of the Commonwealth,” Maxwell wrote. “As the director of the Civil War films ‘Gettysburg,’ ‘Gods and Generals’ and ‘Copperhead’—and a Virginia resident—it is one thing to recreate history, but a more noble effort to preserve it. ... The history we share in Virginia is at risk. We are in danger of erasing the history that attracted many of us to call Virginia home.”

He noted that Culpeper County witnessed four years of the American Civil War, with battles waged at Cedar Mountain, Kelly’s Ford, Brandy Station, Raccoon Ford, Rappahannock Station and Morton’s Ford. Major military campaigns began and ended in the county, including the 2nd Manassas, Gettysburg, Bristoe Station, Mine Run and Overland campaigns, he said.

“Those who fought and lost their lives in the war cannot be forgotten, nor can the hallowed ground on which they fought,” Maxwell wrote.

In an interview Tuesday afternoon, Maxwell said he can hardly fathom that Culpeper or neighboring localities would trade historic land for an industrial-scale solar project.

“Anybody who lives here ... knows this is a cradle of American history—African-American, history, Civil War, Native American, Colonial history,” he said. “I mean, come on. You’re going to put a gigantic solar plant on this ground? It really boggles the mind.

“Once a company gets the camel’s nose in the tent, there’s no end to it,” he said. “The Piedmont has some of the most beautiful countryside in all of America. It’s where we live. To have that wrecked by the solar industry is unconscionable. That is a forever thing.”

Pressure is relentless in Rappahannock, Greene, Madison, Culpeper and neighboring counties to allow big subdivisions and other development, he said.

“We can’t let that happen because, otherwise, these places will get turned into Gainesville inside of five years,” Maxwell said. “It takes a lot of vigilance for we free citizens to protect these places for future generations and for wildlife.”

In the 16 years he has lived in Virginia, Maxwell has occasionally involved himself in other land-use issues. “I help as I can to protect history, nature, open space, and quality of life,” he said.

Maxwell said the agriculture and tourism industries are very important to Culpeper and the region, adding, “Who wants to look at a solar farm? It’s a blight on the landscape.”

Maxwell expressed empathy for landowners neighboring Cricket Solar’s site who feel the project threatens their quality of life.

“Their property values will go to hell in a hand basket if this thing is ever built,” he said. “I don’t know these property owners. But my heart goes out to them.”

Maxwell saw a parallel between his current film project and what might happen with utility-scale solar projects built on Virginia farmland. He is developing a motion picture set during the Highland Clearances in late 18th-century Scotland, in which English landowners forcibly removed Scottish crofters from their homes to capitalize on a boom in wool prices.

He recently returned from London, where he met with others in the film industry about his project to adapt “Consider the Lilies,” a novel about those sorrowful and traumatic events, for the big screen.

Set in 1805, it tells of the families in Northern Scotland evicted from their land to make room for sheep, as their landlords made big money from wool, which had skyrocketed in price during the Napoleonic wars, he said. The Clearances’ effects lasted for generations.

Describing this upheaval, Maxwell said, “The situations are not exactly the same. But the effect is the same, the result is the same,” he said. “People will be compelled to sell and to move off their land to make a handful of people rich. Many people will suffer to make a handful rich.”

Maxwell is a member of the Writers Guild of America, the Directors Guild of America and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and the recipient of an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from Concordia College.

“We are so grateful to Ron for his support,” Susan Ralston, president of Culpeper’s Citizens for Responsible Solar, said Tuesday evening. “His name and his voice have helped us draw attention to our fight to preserve Culpeper’s history.”

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Clint Schemmer, a journalist since 1980, has worked at papers in California, North Carolina and Virginia. He’s been a bureau chief, editorial-page editor, copy desk chief and local news editor. Now a staff writer at the Culpeper Star-Exponent.

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