After hearing from over 20 speakers during a Thursday night public hearing, the Culpeper County Planning Commission unanimously recommended that Maroon Solar’s conditional use permit application to construct a 1,000-acre solar farm be denied.
Maroon Solar, a subsidy of the North Carolina-based Strata Solar, hopes to construct a 149-megawatt solar project located near Raccoon Ford Road, Mount Pony Road and Algonquin Trail. The firm’s plans call for the installation of solar panels on about 960 of the site’s 1,700 acres.
Reasons for the board’s recommendation included the proposed size of the solar farm and that the project does not fall in line with the county’s comprehensive plan. With county guidelines stating that solar farms should not exceed 300 acres, the proposal more than quintuples that land-use policy.
While the Planning Commission recommended denial of the conditional use permit, the decision is ultimately up to the Culpeper County Board of Supervisors.
Planning Commission Chairman Sanford Reaves explained via telephone Friday that while he is a “land rights person,” the proposal simply did not align with the county’s comprehensive plan. The proposed size of the solar farm was his main concern.
Reaves also cited the narrowness of Raccoon Ford Road, saying it would require significant improvements for construction of the solar field to unfold. Beyond those issues, he said the area is a perfect location for a solar farm because it cannot be used for much else.
“When it’s dry, it’s real dry...When it’s wet, it’s real wet. Nothing can grow on it,” he said.
Commissioner Raymond Zegley also noted the proposed size as a reason for recommending denial. Perhaps more importantly, he cited potential erosion issues. He added that county guidelines allow for just 50 acres to be cleared and stabilized at one time while Maroon Solar’s proposal included plans to simultaneously clear much more.
“We need to follow the guidelines, we are not elected, the Board [of Supervisors] is and they give us guidelines,” he said.
Additionally, Zegley thought the developers should have obtained a bond for the entire cost of an eventual decommissioning project and added that it is key to know exactly where blasting during construction would take place.
To even have a chance for the Planning Commission to recommend approval, Planning Director Sam McLearen said via telephone that Maroon Solar would have to reduce the size and scale of the project. Other concerns, he said, included stormwater erosion, the impact of construction on nearby roads and potential noise associated with blasting work.
Dex Sanders, whose property borders the proposed solar field, noted the enormity of the project, pointing out that the site would cover the entirety of Culpeper's downtown.
All of the trees near the site, Sanders added, create a microclimate in which the temperature is about four degrees lower than at the airport.
He expressed concern that Maroon Solar would chop down those trees, install dark solar panels and raise the temperature so urban communities that have already chopped down their trees can receive “green energy” in attempts to “save the earth.”
Other speakers noted that they do not want Culpeper County to become an “energy ghetto” for Loudoun County.
During a presentation, Maroon Solar developers explained that the topography and tree buffers would prevent anyone from seeing the solar farm.
Michael Baudhuin, owner of the nearby Summerduck Run Farm, took issue with that sentiment, comparing it to having a termite-infested basement.
“I could say that I don’t see them so they aren’t going to hurt me," he said.
While the vast majority of speakers during the public hearing opposed the project, two spoke in favor. Dewayne Forrest, whose farm borders the site, said he has visited solar farms and seen no evidence of erosion or other issues. He added that it is the Planning Commission’s job to move Culpeper into the future instead of clinging onto the 1860s.
Maroon Solar is just one of five companies that have attempted to build solar farms in Culpeper over the last five years. It is such an attractive location for solar projects because Dominion Energy’s Remington-Gordonsville transmission line runs through the county.
Two years ago, Greenwood Solar received approval to construct a solar farm off Blackjack Road. While a special use permit was granted for that project, it recently expired. The Virginia General Assembly, however, recently passed legislation granting a two-year extension to all use permits that were valid in July 2020.
That legislation, however, does not take effect until March, at which point McLearen said he expects discussion surrounding Greenwood Solar to resume. Meanwhile, another solar company is exploring the possibility of a project in the county.