The Culpeper County Planning Commission has unanimously—and in short order—recommended against granting a conditional use permit for the 1,000-acre Maroon Solar power plant project on rural farmland near Raccoon Ford.
The vote came last week following its first formal review of the $200 million project of Durham, N.C. based Strata Solar.
In comparison, the county planning commission labored many hours, often times over the course of numerous meetings, in its earlier review of several other previously-submitted utility-scale solar projects, scrutinizing every detail of the CUP applications late into the night.
But opposition was swift and clear this time around due to the sheer scope of the project, encompassing a total of 1,792 acres of agriculturally zoned land formerly in timber production. Of those, developers intend to place solar panels on 1,000 acres on the land owned primarily by an out-of-state timber company along Algonquin Trail, Raccoon Ford Road and Mount Pony Road.
The developer asserts the project on cleared timberland will be hidden from view and benefit the county financially while generating clean energy, a major goal of the state.
Richard Dearing with West Virginia-based Pardee Virginia Timber 2LLC, in written comments to the county, urged the planning commission to approve the “unobtrusive” project on his company’s land saying, “not only as a property rights issue,” but for the benefit to Culpeper County, creating jobs and revenue.
Maroon Solar developer Louis Iannone said in a statement Monday the company was disappointed with the planning commission’s denial of its project plan.
“We heard their comments and are working hard to address the issues raised,” he said, adding, “We continue to believe our proposed solar project is good for Culpeper County.”
Many comments were made last Thursday night among planning commission members about the size and scale of the project being too large and not in conformance with the county solar policy as currently written, according to Culpeper County Planning & Zoning Director Sam McLearen.
The solar policy seeks “an upper target” county-wide limiting all large solar projects to 2,400 acres as well as a limit of 300 acres per project and 50 acres of land grading at a time.
Neighbors and history, conservation and environmental groups have made their opposition known. The project is located close to the Rapidan River and its sensitive resources. It is also where historic groups contend significant Civil War history exists, arguing the solar project would ruin the area’s historic “view sheds” around Clarks Mountain, the Confederate Army’s most significant visual observation point in the Virginia Piedmont, according to correspondence from Citizens for Responsible Solar, leader in the local solar fight.
The group submitted a Change.org petition opposing Maroon Solar with nearly 1,400 signatures of people from around the country and world.
Area resident Fred Reid, in written comments to the planning commission, emphasized wide-scale erosion environmental impacts of allowing hundreds of thousands of solar panels to be installed on land formerly grown with trees. Timber production on the site 50-plus years or more “provided a green environment,” he stated, while limiting water runoff and protecting animal habitats.
In addition, Reid said in his letter, area soil is notoriously “blackjack,” poor draining and comprised of heavy clay. Water will run off into area streams in the Rappahannock River watershed emptying into the Chesapeake Bay.
Blackjack Road resident Wanda Evan Mallaburn, in a letter to the county, said she supported the solar project that will be located close to her house, one of only a few in the immediate project area. The project is unobtrusive and will create jobs for the area and tax revenue, she said.
Mallaburn spoke in favor of the project for its ability to generate energy from the sun enough to power 25,000 homes.
County planners, in rejecting Maroon Solar’s permit request last week, also noted impacts during construction (erosion, traffic and noise) and that the project does not comply with the comprehensive plan, McLearen said. Similar concerns were noted in the staff report.
“The Planning Commission made the finding that the applicant’s utility-scale solar energy generation facility proposal is not a feature presently shown on the County’s Comprehensive Plan, that the subject-proposal’s general or approximate location, character and extent are not substantially in accord with the County’s Comprehensive Plan,” Planning Commission Chairman Sanford Reaves wrote in a letter to the Board of Supervisors.
The elected board will hold a public hearing on the Maroon Solar conditional use permit request and consider the planning commission recommendation at 7 p.m. during its Tuesday, Dec. 1 meeting, possibly in Eastern View High School auditorium, depending on pandemic restrictions in place.
The Planning Commission, in its denial, according to Reaves’ letter, also found the project would affect adversely the health or safety of people living and working in the neighborhood and is detrimental to the public welfare or injurious to property or improvements in the neighborhood.
As for another pending, 1,000-acre utility-scale solar project in the same area of Culpeper County, Greenwood Solar, its permit expired in October after neighbors sued to the state supreme court to stop the project, but lost. The Florida-based company has asked the county to extend the life of the permit, but the Board of Supervisors has not acted on the request.
A new state law, effective March 1, 2021, will automatically extend the Greenwood permit until July 1, 2022, according to McLearen, as well as other land use permits across the state due to development delays associated with the pandemic. After that, the county planning commission could resume its site plan review of the project near Stevensburg.
According to County Administrator John Egertson, once the new state law is effective it would supersede any action the Board of Supervisors might taking regarding a permit extension request.