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1,700-acre Maroon Solar project considered again by Culpeper planners this week
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1,700-acre Maroon Solar project considered again by Culpeper planners this week

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The 1,700-acre Maroon Solar project of North Carolina-based Strata Solar goes back before the Culpeper County Planning Commission at 7 p.m. this Wednesday night in the auditorium at Eastern View High School.

Consideration of the resubmittal comes some four months after the company pulled its original application for the solar power project on mostly cleared timberland near Raccoon Ford, zoned for agricultural use.

The proposal faced opposition from neighbors and others regarding its size and the impact on rural viewshed, natural resources and environment, and the historic nature of the remote area near the Rapidan River. The parcel is bisected by the Dominion Power transmission line to which the project would connect.

The revised proposal extends the project to three years to be built in approximate 300-acre sections annually with panels covering around 1,000 acres. It also moves the substation off the road and into the interior of the project.

In its latest 13-page report on the CUP request, Culpeper County Planning & Community Development staff again declined support for the project due to its size.

Staff referred to the county’s current solar policy which limits projects to 300 acres of solar panels. At the same time, staff acknowledged the board of supervisors is considering creating a new land zoning, Utility Scale Energy Generation District, for placing large renewable energy projects like solar and wind farms. These projects would require a land rezoning and the conditional use permit process.

In its most recent conversations last month on the generation district, the board reached consensus to not codify a size limit for solar farms in the proposed ordinance and to consider requests on a case-by-case basis. However, the matter is not yet finalized; the planning commission will get its first look at the new land zoning proposal at a special meeting March 17.

The current Maroon Solar application exceeds the 300 acres and is a concern for staff, according to the staff report.

“The applicant has submitted an application that divides the project into three phases which brings the individual phases closer to this 300-acre target in an effort to more closely align with the current policy. The applicant provides several reasons of why this project should be allowed to exceed the overall size threshold, but the main reason appears to be financial,” the staff report states.

Mass grading of the site involving more than 50 acres at a time is also a concern for county staff as well as the Culpeper Soil & Water Conservation District, which noted potential widespread erosion impacts of the project in a Feb. 4 report.

Permanent vegetation should be in place prior to the disturbance of any next phase of 50 acres, the District stated.

The resubmittal substantially increased bonding assurance to $35.7 million for dealing with any issues when the project is decommissioned in 30-plus years. This estimate is much more in line with potential actual decommissioning costs, according to the staff report, and does not include salvage value, which previous applications and developers desired to do.

“In staff’s opinion, the County should remain conservatively high with this estimate to cover the ‘unknown’ costs as acknowledged by the applicant. The estimate suggested by current application of more than $35 million is more realistic and demonstrates a better commitment by this applicant,” according to the staff report.

Impacts to the immediate neighborhood of the Maroon Solar project appear to be low during the operational phase, staff noted.

But construction and decommissioning phases could be significant to the road network and local environment, staff said.

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Leading opposition to utility scale solar projects in Culpeper County, Citizens for Responsible Solar sent a letter to the planning commission Friday asking them to deny the Maroon Solar site based on adjoining property value impact.

The solar project is mostly internally located on cleared timberland parcels bordered by Algonquin Trail and Mount Pony Road. Small sections of solar panels will adjoin or touch both roads while Raccoon Ford Road, also bordering the project, will have the most solar arrays directly adjoining the road.

With the letter to the planning commission, Citizens for Responsible Solar President Susan Ralston, an Algonquin Drive resident, resubmitted a 2018 property impact analysis conducted by Christopher Mashburn of Mashburn Appraisal Group in N.C.

“If there were no negative impact on adjacent property, we would not be opposing this application or other industrial-scale solar projects in our district,” Ralston wrote in the letter.

Strata Solar has also submitted a 2020 property impact analysis for its Culpeper project completed by Christian P. Kaila & Associates of Fredericksburg. The firm researched and visited the Maroon Solar site as well as existing and under-construction solar sites in Louisa and Essex in reaching its conclusion, Kaila wrote in the property impact document.

“Based on my analysis of the neighborhood and properties surrounding the proposed solar site, and my analysis of other existing solar farms in similar locations, it is our professional opinion that the proposed solar electric power plant will not adversely affect the value of adjoining or abutting property,” the Strata study stated. “It is also my professional opinion that the location and character of the solar facility, if developed according to the plan as proposed, will be in harmony with the area in which it is to be located.”

Ralston, in stating additional project opposition points in the letter Friday, said the county is in the process of potentially developing a new energy generation zone ordinance that needs to be complete before any solar applications are approved.

Citizens is not in favor of creating the new land zone, she said in an email Saturday to the Star-Exponent. Ralston said adding another level of government would only delay the process and that the conditional use permit process was adequate.

“I believe it is in the best interest of the county to decide these matters quickly,” she said.

Ralston said the Board of Supervisors is proposing spot zoning with the new land zone that could complicate issues of transferring land ownership and raises questions about zoning for former agriculture land not covered with solar panels.

“We approve of the 300-acre limit and strongly oppose getting rid of size/acreage limitation … We are in favor of a strong solar ordinance that protects the rural character of the community, protects impacted landowners, and the environment,” Ralston said.

Ralston said in the letter to the planning commission that even though Maroon Solar modified the project to extend it over three years with smaller sections, “It is still 1,700 acres of land that will be destroyed.”

The rural landscape targeted for the project is not marginal land, she added, and has been in agricultural use for decades as timber.

“The timber was recently harvested and should be replanted. Cutting down trees and replacing them with solar panels is NOT green,” Ralston said.

Potential environmental hazards from the solar power plant project remain, she said, also noting an ongoing federal grant-funded study by Friends of Cedar Mountain Battlefield researching and documenting the Civil War era Rapidan Front.

“If Maroon were to be approved, the power plant would leave an integrity hole in the study area and prevent the area from being recognized as culturally significant,” according to Ralston.

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