The Culpeper County Board of Supervisors will convene for a special meeting next week to shift focus back on the potentially changing agricultural landscape as at least two industrial scale solar projects exist on the horizon.
On Tuesday the Rules Committee recommended an update to the county’s Utility Scale Solar Development Policy to reflect recent changes in the state law, but the board deferred action.
“The community is in a mode here where we are getting overrun by the solar,” said Cedar Mountain Supervisor Jack Frazier at the morning meeting at Eastern View High School. “Culpeper County is easy pickings for these solar companies.”
Localities to the north and south of Culpeper are not having the same problems, Frazier added, saying the county’s current solar policy is weak: “So much work needs to go into this. We need to spend whatever time it takes to fix this problem. We don’t want all this solar development on all this farmland.”
Frazier called for a committee of the whole meeting to revisit the solar policy the county started working on three years ago, prior to the October 2018 approval of the first and only solar project approved so far on agricultural land in Stevensburg.
Revised several times since, the policy addresses distance from neighbors to the solar panels, mass grading, cleanup, stormwater management and soil erosion, construction and traffic, inspections, impact on natural and historic resources and more.
Vice Chairman Brad Rosenberger agreed a meeting was needed in light of current projects and changes in state solar policy legislation.
“Do it all together to have a product we all can agree on,” he said. The meeting will be held at 10:30 a.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 11 in the county boardroom on Main Street.
State changes impacting solar
Introduced by the administration of Gov. Ralph Northam and approved by the Democrat-led General Assembly, the Commonwealth Clean Energy Policy requires all carbon-emitting sources of electricity to retire in Virginia by 2045. To replace it will be investments in solar, onshore wind, offshore wind, energy efficiency, and battery storage, the policy states.
County Attorney Bobbi Jo Alexis gave an overview of related legislative changes at the July 14 Rules Committee meeting. Among them is a new law providing the option for localities to collect a revenue share energy tax of up to $1,400 per megawatt of capacity installed per project annually; it would not apply to previously approved projects, though project owners could voluntarily pay the energy tax.
Recent changes in state law also permit localities to give tax exemptions on solar power equipment and the ability to negotiate siting agreements for solar projects with developers. Another change in state law allows counties to dispense with the finding that a project is in substantial compliance with a locality’s comprehensive plan, Alexis said: “I would advise you against that,” she told the committee last month.
Alexis noted the Commonwealth Energy Policy was “significantly changed” in the past session to include “a whole new breadth of purposes and goals and missions.” She advised board members to be aware of those changes and how it might alter the county solar policy.
A new section added to the Commonwealth Energy Policy states: “Climate change is an urgent and pressing challenge for Virginia. Swift de-carbonization and transition to clean energy are required to meet the urgency of this challenge.” The state policy newly states Virginia “will benefit from being a leader in deploying a low-carbon energy economy.” It calls for a 30 percent reduction in greenhouse gases in Virginia by 2030.
At the committee meeting, Rosenberger favored adopting the revenue share energy tax for future solar projects, saying, “I think you ought to recommend that to the board and move forward with changing the (local) policy.” He spoke against any tax breaks for equipment, saying it was not a good idea “to put money back into solar developer’s pockets.”
Culpeper solar project status updates
The county’s only approved conditional use permit for an industrial scale solar plant is a 100-megawatt project off of Blackjack Road, and it is set to expire in October. Formerly owned by Greenwood Energy of Texas, NextEra Energy of Florida is the current owner.
The Culpeper County Planning Commission has reviewed the project site plan once and will again at a meeting at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, August. 12.
Culpeper County Planning Director Sam McLearen said on Thursday that the project is still in the site plan review and that the applicant had asked that the planning commission not take any final action on it until the Sept. 9 meeting. Potential approval in September comes very close to the October expiration of the conditional use permit issued two years ago.
As a result, Greenwood will need to start construction of the project by Oct. 2, 2020 to keep the permit valid, McLearen said. Before construction can begin, site plan approval is needed, he said, noting a provision in which the solar developer could petition the board of supervisors for a one-year extension.
The company has submitted voluminous documents including answers to recent questions from the planning commission, a revised site plan, landscaping plan, decommissioning plan, construction traffic management plan, vegetation plan as well as letters from the Dept. of Historic Resources, Conversation and Recreation and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
County staff also continues early review for a new conditional use permit application for the Maroon Solar project. A North Carolina company is seeking to place 960 acres of solar panels on 13 parcels southeast of State Route 3 along an unpaved portion of Raccoon Ford Road. McLearen said a planning commission review date had not been set for this new submission and no staff reports had been generated about it.
Susan Ralston with Citizens for Responsible Solar has led the local group fighting large-scale solar development in Culpeper County due to proximity to historic Civil War sites and a rural landscape. The group is seeking to delay approval of either of the two aforementioned projects pending completion of a study funded by the Department of Interior’s American Battlefield Protection Program.
“The historic significance of this land is undeniable. As a result, Friends of Cedar Mountain Battlefield and other allies oppose both solar projects,” Ralston wrote in a public comment read at Tuesday night’s board of supervisors meeting.
She went on, “It is time for Culpeper County to develop and pass a serious solar ordinance that restricts large-scale solar to industrial-zoned land or contaminated/marginal land … The rural land being targeted for solar development represents a rich agricultural and historic heritage … if citizens and county officials do not stand up to fight for and protect that land they will be destroyed forever.”