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Culpeper panel peppers Fla. firm with questions about Stevensburg solar plant
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Culpeper panel peppers Fla. firm with questions about Stevensburg solar plant

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Culpeper’s first utility-scale solar plant is getting a close look from county planning commissioners as the project moves closer to construction.

Commissioners devoted more than an hour, in a work session last week, to peppering the developer’s representatives with detailed questions about the 1,093-acre, 100-megawatt facility that county supervisors approved in late 2018 off Blackjack Road in the Stevensburg District.

Most members of the advisory panel asked specifics of Greenwood Solar LLC’s attorney and consultants, inquiring about truck traffic, visibility, landscaping, site access, drainage and more.

The Board of Supervisors approved the project on Oct. 2, 2018, and extended the usual one-year conditional-use permit for an extra year. So Greenwood, a subsidiary of FLORIDA, wants to start building its facility this fall.

Culpeper Planning Director Sam McLearen urged speed in the commissioners’ review, telling the panel that “time is of the essence.”

Proposed to feed Northern Virginia’s hungry, rapidly growing data centers, proposals for large solar farms have been controversial in Culpeper, with residents expressing worry about their impact on roads, agricultural soils, historic sites and waterways.

Stevensburg-area landowners’ legal challenge to Greenwood failed, losing in the county Circuit Court and the Virginia Supreme Court.

Thomas Klein, an attorney with the law firm of Troutman Pepper, told planning commissioners July 8 that Greewood’s site plan conforms with state law and the 35 conditions that Culpeper supervisors put on the county permit.

Klein promised a speedy reply to the commissioners’ many questions. “We’ll make sure you receive a written answer to every question, and have experts available to drill down further.”

Commission Chairman Sanford Reaves thanked Klein for the effort, saying his members appreciate getting detailed information when they ask a question.

“Let’s get this right the first time, so the time we’ve spent tonight is not for nothing, ... so the staff is truly informed,” Reaves said. “... Our constituents are holding us accountable as we advise our Board of Supervisors.”

Lance Kilby, a new commissioner who is a professional engineer, pressed on many issues posed by his careful review of Greenwood’s plans.

He expressed doubt about the developer’s method for screening the thousands of solar panels from view, given the site’s undulating topography.

Kilby asked if Greenwood had done any viewshed analysis that would help officials understand how the project would appear from adjoining areas.

He said Greenwood had not submitted a plan to prevent spills from its stormwater retention plans, nor an agreement on who would maintain them so that responsibility doesn’t fall on the county.

Commissioner Laura Rogers asked where trucks carrying solar panels and other construction materials to the site will come from.

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Klein couldn’t answer, but said the trucks would enter Batna Road from State Route 3, coming from the east. He said he would ask Greenwood’s design team and traffic engineer to address her point after the developer receives its occupancy permit from Culpeper.

Rogers also asked how Culpeper will be notified when the plant’s solar panels are going to be replaced, and how Greenwood will avoid traffic issues then on the narrow roads near the site.

Greenwood’s representatives said the company will use an access road, on its land, that Dominion is using to access its Stevensburg-area high-voltage transmission line. It will create staging areas there for its trucks, trying to keep bigger deliveries off Batna Road, they said. But it will be up to the Virginia Department of Transportation to notify local officials of construction deliveries.

Commissioner Raymond Zegley asked if Greenwood will have to blast bedrock to develop its sprawling site, saying “that’s a big deal.”

“This is a lot to look at,” Zegley told Klein about Greenwood’s hundreds of pages of plans. “When you give us your final plan, we need at least two weeks to review it, and maybe more than that.”

In conclusion, Reaves urged Greenwood to make every effort to hire local people for the project. He noted that other businesses have come to Culpeper, promising employment opportunities, but then said they couldn’t find any qualified people.

Klein said Greenwood will hold a job fair.

A local historic-preservation group is asking the planning commissioners and supervisors to delay the county’s consideration of the site plan until it can finish a historical study of the area proposed for solar development. The U.S. of the Interior is funding a study by the all-volunteer Friends of Cedar Mountain Battlefield of Culpeper County’s “Rapidan Front” area of Civil War battlefields and historic sites.

The friends are researching Culpeper’s Racoon Ford, Morton’s Ford and Sommerville Ford battlefields, sites that were fought over in 1863 and 1864 during the American Civil War. The three battlefields and related historic sites lie along the Rapidan River, which separated the Confederate and Union armies during that period. The study area includes the Greenwood Solar project land.

The friends group has written the Planning Commission to implore it not to approve the solar developer’s plan until it can complete its study.

The leader of Culpeper critics of industrial-scale solar plants welcomed the commissioners’ scrutiny.

“I’m glad the planning commissioners are conducting their due diligence, but there’s no guarantee that Greenwood Solar will abide by any agreed-upon conditions, as the county has demonstrated its inability to enforce the conditions of a use permit,” said Culpeper County resident Susan Ralston, president of Citizens for Responsible Solar.

“Look at the disaster with SPower’s (solar plant) site in Spotsylvania,” Ralston added. “That county has a larger staff than Culpeper, and yet the solar developer is not being held accountable to its site plan while neighboring properties have had stormwater runoff and erosion problems.

“At the end of the day, the best outcome would be for Culpeper to let this conditional-use permit expire in October before Greenwood can destroy this historic, agricultural-zoned land,” she said.

Greenwood Solar LLC of Juno Beach, Fla., won county supervisors’ 3-2 vote in 2018 to grant a conditional-use permit.

Greenwood proposes to build its project on land owned by Stevensburg District Supervisor William Chase Jr., Belle Meade Farms, the estate of Manuel DaSilva, Stanley Hawkins, Sherwood Limited Partnership, and William A. Spillman III, according to its application.

Timmons Group of Richmond, an engineering firm, submitted the application for its client, Florida-based Next Era Energy Resources, which bought the venture from Greenwood Energy of Texas. NextEra, affiliated with Florida Power & Light, describes itself as the world’s largest operator of wind and solar projects.

The solar plant would have an expected lifespan of at least 20 years, and could operate 30 years or more if equipment were replaced, Timmons Group said.

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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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