Solar Maxwell

 

Culpeper County was the home of fierce fighting in the Civil War - now the land that has been called the “most marched over” during the War of the States is under attack again.

So says a Culpeper organization that is fighting to stave off a proposed utility-scale solar farm in the Raccoon Ford area of the county. 

Citizens for Responsible Solar won a battle early last week as German-owned Cricket Solar LLC pulled their application for a utility-scale solar facility along Route 647 (Algonquin Trail),  Route 617 (Racoon Ford Road) and Route 661 (Blackjack Road). The proposed solar farm was to use up to approximately 885.6 acrs of the total 1589.8 acres for solar arrays and other ancillary equipment. 

In a letter to Culpeper County Planning Director Sam McLearen, M. Ann Neil Cosby - representing Cricket Solar - announced their intention to withdraw their application on Aug. 26. 

“On behalf of Cricket Solar, LLC (“Cricket”), I am writing to formally withdraw Cricket's Conditional Use Permit (“CUP”) Application (Case No. U-2214-18-1] filed on December 21, 2108, related to its proposed utility scale solar facility (the “Project”),” Cosby wrote. “Cricket has been working diligently over the last few months redesigning the Project boundaries to protect wetlands, improve efficiencies, and respond to community concerns related to the Project. These efforts remain ongoing. However, at this time, the company believes a withdrawal of the Project is necessary in order to ensure that any Project proposed represents Cricket's best effort to address community concerns. We sincerely appreciate the County's efforts and time to this date on our application.”

Susan Ralston, President of Citizens for Responsible Solar, expressed joy that Cricket Solar has withdrawn its application. 

“This project was never in line with the rural and agricultural character of the area,” she said in an email Tuesday.  “While we see this as a victory, the war against industrial-scale solar isn’t over. We will continue to press County officials to adopt a solar ordinance that balances the demand for renewable energy while protecting the environment and landowners.  Until then, the County is still under threat from industrial-scale solar developers.”

The fight for the Raccoon Ford

Cricket originally submitted an application in Dec. 2018 for a utility-scale solar facility - the third such application in Culpeper County.

On Oct. 2, 2018, the  Culpeper County Board of Supervisors approved the county’s first utility-scale solar facility by a 3-2 vote. The BOS approved the conditional use permit by Greenwood Solar I, LLC to operate a utility-scale solar facility off Blackjack Road in the Stevensburg District. Greenwood Solar, a subsidiary of Nextera Energy Resource, asked to utilize five properties for a max 1,000 acre, 19,000 megawatt solar farm. 

The proposal was not recommended by the Planning Commission, by a 5-4 vote, but according to Director of Culpeper County Planning and Zoning, Sam McLearen, staff was not as opposed to this use permit than others, despite the proposal not falling in line with the county’s comprehensive plan.

The site Cricket was proposing in the Raccoon Ford area was just on the other side of Blackjack Road.

Ralston said she learned about the application in March and started to form the organization with it gaining traction and formally launching in late June or early July. On July 30, Ralston and her husband Troy asked Rep. Abigail Spanberger at her town hall in Culpeper about her thoughts on renewable energy and specifically about solar developers coming into Culpeper County and using agricultural land - mentioning two pending projects that would take up more than 3,000 acres.

Ralston said the organization hired a land use lawyer, an economist and retained an appraiser to look at documents that Cricket had submitted to the county. 

“The research we did is that the county doesn’t benefit, the electricity bypasses Culpeper all together,” Ralston said. 

In a report submitted by Cricket from Kirkland - a go-to consultant for solar companies - it was claimed that property values would remain neutral or show positive growth. 

“That just flies in the face of common sense,” Ralston said. “We were preparing to refute that.”

Ralston said that the group had been “relentless” about getting their message out, going as far as having tours with local historian Bud Hall to show the historical impact of the Raccoon Ford area. She said she was blown away about what she learned about her community, having just bought her 30 acre farm in 2009. 

“It was an amazing experience,” Ralston said. “I had not met Bud Hall until this campaign. When I found out about the history of my backyard - about how important the Rapidan River was - it was incredible to know. I’ve gone on several tours with Bud since then, and every time I go I learn so much about the county and what a rich history we have. I’m in awe that we’ve managed to preserve what we have, and I’ll continue to fight that it’s protected in the future.”

The history of Raccoon Ford

Hall has long touted the importance of Raccoon Ford, noting that the river served as a dividing line between the North and the South for five and a half months in 1864.

He said essentially it was the dividing line between two countries.

“Is that river line not worth protecting?” Hall asked. 

Raccoon Ford and the homes surrounding were heavily traversed during the Civil War. Both armies utilized the area for its strategic location - 18 miles to the North is the Rappahannock River and less than a mile south of the historic home Greenville sits the Rapidan River. 

Culpeper County was strategically vital to armies throughout the Civil War, as they could move into the county from the North and the South, have rivers with territory control and access to the Blue Ridge to the West.

The Old Carolina Road, now known as Blackjack Road, was the main artery through the county. It crossed Norman’s Road into Culpeper, went straight into Brandy Station, turned Southwest onto what is now Blackjack Road and came down and crossed at the Rapidan River at Raccoon Ford. 

“It’s the oldest and most famous ford on Rapidan watershed,” Hall said. 

The river was crossed numerous times by both armies, on Aug. 9 1862 the Battle of Cedar Mountain was fought and on Aug. 10-11 Stonewall Jackson and his army retreated across the Rapidan River. 

Federal Gen. John Pope established a line at the river with historic Greenville sitting at the center of the Rapidan line. 

Hall called it the “vortex” of the Rapidan front.

The Rapidan was crossed again in Mary 1863 and became heavily occupied by the Federal army and was crossed again during Stoneman’s Raid. 

The Battle of Brandy Station on June 9, 1863 commenced the Gettysburg Campaign and following the Confederates loss in Pennsylvania, they again fell back to the Rapidan. 

“Every time the Confederates would fall back to defend the Rappahannock River with the Rapidan at their back,” Hall said. 

Hall also pointed out the Algonquin Indians heavily traversed the area. It’s steeped in history. 

One avenue Ralston has discussed is working to name the area a Rural Historic District.

John McCarthy, Senior Advisor & Director of Strategic Partnerships, Piedmont Environmental Council, said that just half a mile south that the proposed Rapidan Historic District encompasses parts of Orange and Madison counties. That process has taken 18 months but Raccoon Ford is not included.

“We haven’t looked at the details of Raccoon Ford closely enough,” McCarthy said.

Naming the area a Rural Historic District would not require landowners to have any limitations, it would just acknowledge the historic values of the area. 

Jim Streeter, bought his home in Raccoon Ford in 2007 because of that history. His home is the only one in the village that survived the Civil War, all the others were burned. 

“What I think is unique about this place is how unchanged it is,” Streeter said. “This is basically unchanged from the end of the war.”

He points to a small home sitting on private property along the river, “that was the post office in Raccoon Ford.”

His house had to be redone, so it would not qualify for the historic register because of new windows and the like. 

Maxwell’s charge

Ironically, just one day before Cricket would pull their application - Citizens for Responsible Solar held a rally at Greenville with Hollywood director and Rappahannock County resident Ron Maxwell urging not to defile the land with solar farms. 

Maxwell, the director of “Gettysburg” and “Gods and Generals,” called the idea “foolishness” and under the guise of improvement and progress.

“I stand in opposition to this solar farm,” he said, standing in front of a crowd of more than 50. “I acknowledge that we're in a global energy crisis. We know we’re looking for different ways to get off of fossil fuels. In terms of the big picture, solar farms are never the answer - let alone to put them on historic property, revered land. It doesn’t get any more hallowed than this.”

Maxwell cautioned that no one here was an energy “denier,” that he knew solutions needed to be reasonable, sensible and not have a negative impact on residents lives. 

“I don’t think I’m against solar, it’s another tool in the toolbox,” Maxwell said. “The question is how do we deploy solar? If you look at some of the western Eurpean countries - say Denmark - they encourage their citizens to own it. Why should a company stand between us and the sun? It doesn’t make any sense to me. We shouldn’t fall for this trick.

One thing for sure is that solar farms are a really stupid solution,” Maxwell said. “They are a bad solution anywhere you want to put them.”

Maxwell was recruited by Shirley & Banister Public Affairs, which circulated a petition which accumulated more than 1,500 signatures.

"Shirley & Banister Public Affairs is proud to have worked with Citizens for Responsible Solar and the community of Culpeper County, Virginia.  When fertile and historically significant land is threatened, the amplified and unified voice of the people must be heard,” said Kevin McVicker, Vice President of Shirley & Banister Public Affairs.

For now, Raccoon Ford will not be home to the solar farm. But there is nothing stopping another application from being submitted for the area.

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