The conflict over the development of utility-scale solar projects in Culpeper played out in dramatic fashion on Tuesday night. The decision before Culpeper’s Board of Supervisors was whether to listen to solar developers or Culpeper citizens.
Greenwood Solar has already been approved on 1,000 acres of farmland in the Stevensburg District, and several other applications have been submitted in the last four years. Stevensburg is zoned mostly agricultural, but it has been targeted for industrial development by data centers and solar power plants because of Dominion’s transmission lines that carry the power far from Culpeper into the nation’s electrical grid. Also, the area is relatively flat, making construction easier and cheaper.
There were several takeaways from the meeting.
First, the timing of the hearing was curious. The Planning Commission recommended a solar ordinance in October 2021 restricting utility-scale solar to industrial-zoned land, along with a project size limitation of 300 acres and a land disturbance limit of 50 acres at a time. These recommendations were made after reviewing solar projects in other Virginia counties and listening to Culpeper residents. The Board of Supervisors did not schedule a hearing on the ordinance until Feb. 7, 2023, more than a year later, but just before Maroon Solar applications would be heard by the board, which is scheduled for March 7.
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Second, it seemed some members of the board wanted to remove all three key provisions of the draft ordinance—zoning restriction, project size limit and land disturbance limit—which would pave the way for Maroon Solar’s approval, despite being denied by the Planning Commission three previous times.
What motivated the board’s apparent rush to water down the ordinance? Maroon Solar’s first proposed upfront cash payment to the county was $1 million, then $2 million with its second application, and now $4 million with its current application. A speaker asked during the hearing if our supervisors’ votes were for sale. The question was met with uncomfortable silence from the board. Our supervisors’ quest for funding appears to blind some of them to the need to safeguard the quality of our environment.
Third, an article in Thursday’s Star–Exponent featured quotes from some speakers in favor of utility-scale solar who are not residents of Culpeper County, including the representative of Maroon Solar.
The majority of those who spoke in favor of a strong ordinance were residents of Stevensburg and other local districts. No residents of Stevensburg spoke in favor of a weaker ordinance.
Promoting small-scale solar without the need of the transmission line would open up solar to other districts, not just land in Stevensburg. The original intent of the solar policy was to allow the construction of solar electrical generation facilities to give Culpeper farmers an alternative means of generating income. It was not the intention to allow utility-scale solar on thousands of acres of farmland.
After hours of public comment, the board voted 4–3 to reinstate the 300 acre project limit into the solar ordinance and add a 100 acre land disturbance limit into the policy (which is just a guideline, not a law).
These are good first steps, but the ordinance should be amended to include a restriction of utility-scale solar projects to industrially zoned land, a land disturbance limit and a 2-mile distance between permitted projects. With Maroon Solar and North Ridge Solar still pending, timberland and neighboring farms in Stevensburg are still threatened.
Supervisor David Durr recommended an outside consulting firm be retained to review the enormous design and construction document packages that are part of utility-scale solar projects. He, rightly, said that the county’s staff was ill-equipped to review and comment on these projects.
I would go one step further and recommend that the county retain a consultant to help farmers develop their own solar facilities. Farmers, as smart as they are, cannot be expected to learn all that is required to develop and build a solar facility on their land.
Finally, the real star at Tuesday’s meeting was Supervisor Susan Gugino.
She has been the leader in the fight against the industrialization of her district. Gugino had the courage to conduct town hall meetings to listen to constituent concerns and share information about the threats to Culpeper’s agricultural character. In the end, the vote went her way. Kudos to Supervisor Gugino.
The battle over utility-scale solar power plants in Culpeper will continue. However, given the determined opposition by many citizens, there is hope that these massive developments will be properly sited in the future.