A local jurisdiction in northern Virginia moved closer to rejecting a clean energy developer’s plan to construct a massive 149-megawatt solar facility on a sprawling plot of farmland for the third time in three years.
The Culpeper County, Virginia, planning commission, a nine-member panel that reviews the county’s zoning and development proposals, voted unanimously during a public hearing last week to recommend the facility’s proposal be denied by the board of supervisors. During the meeting, both residents and members of the commission expressed concern about the size of the project and its agricultural and environmental impacts.
The Maroon Solar project was first proposed by North Carolina-based energy developer Strata Clean Energy in 2020. The company withdrew its original application following intense pushback from locals and submitted a modified proposal in 2021. After that was turned down by the county, Strata returned with its third proposal last year.
“We advocate for solar on covered parking lots along highways, on marginal brownfields or on industrial zone land,” Susan Ralston, the founder of the Virginia-based group Citizens for Responsible Solar, told G3 Box News Digital in an interview. “But what we don’t want to see is large swaths of farmland, agricultural land and timberland being taken out of [agricultural] use and used for solar.”
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Ralston, who spoke at the hearing last week, founded Citizens for Responsible Solar in 2019 to help equip local solar opposition efforts with resources and information. The group has been active supporting grassroots movements against the development of solar facilities, including the Maroon Solar project and others in northern Virginia, on rural property.
Ralston also noted that Strata’s most recent proposal involves a $4 million siting deal.
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“It’s like a cash incentive, it’s like a bribe. You know, ‘If you approve our project, then we’re going to give you $4 million in cash once it gets approved,'” Ralston said. “They’re going to throw as many incentives at our board to disregard the policy and disregard what residents want. There’s just a lot of money at stake.”
During the hearing Jan. 11, several local residents voiced concern with the project, echoing Ralston’s concerns.
Among the main objections to the project was the potential environmental impact of water runoff that could disturb agricultural production in the area.
“I’m from a farm family and maybe bring some sort of perspective to flooding,” William Foshay, a local farmer, told the commission during the Jan. 11 hearing. “It’s a wet area with highly productive soils. In an average wet year, we get corn into the ground in the middle of May. If we are dealing with an enormous amount of impervious [solar] panel coverage and vast amount of tree clearing, the subsoil is going to remain impervious — runoffs are going to be substantial.
“In just an average wet year, it means that the soils — we won’t get into them until June,” he added. “Furthermore, for the truly bad years, you’re going to see enormous sediment runoff. You’re going to see vast amounts of erosion that permanently jeopardizes productive agricultural land.”
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Josiah Wilkes, a young resident who was accompanied by his father, told the panel the project was about “the money a few people would make” from it.
“I think solar panels would be really good on top of office buildings and hospitals and even on top of people’s houses,” Wilkes said. “Can we keep our farmland for the cows, the crops and the woods? The farmers need to grow the food and the lumber that we all need. We don’t have to be like other counties in Virginia that want money from data centers and solar fields.”
Wilkes’ father Joshua added that the proposal would benefit “a few select landowners who will pocket money” while having the potential to cause “disastrous environmental issues and the wasting of land.”
Sarah Parmelee, a local landowner and a member of the Piedmont Environmental Council, wrote to the commission earlier this month, arguing the proposal would “destroy nearly a thousand acres of timberland.”
In addition to the environmental impacts, the planning commission voted against the proposal because it violated the county’s solar development policy approved in October 2019. The policy limits solar projects to 300 acres and requires certain limitations to disturbances caused by construction of such facilities.
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The project, however, would stretch across 671 acres of farmland, and construction would impact surrounding property owners, the commission concluded.
“The sheer size and scale of this project will undoubtedly in many ways change the character of the area and should be considered,” staff for the planning commission wrote in a report Dec. 28. “Converting several hundred acres of productive, commercial forestland to solar panels will change the character of the immediate area.
“Staff cannot recommend support of this project at this time as proposed as it does not conform closely enough to the county’s most current Utility Scale Solar policy.”
Strata Clean Energy did not respond to a request for comment.