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Green milk? Culpeper planners table solar farm permit after hearing residents' fears

Green milk? Culpeper planners table solar farm permit after hearing residents' fears

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All 14 speakers during a public hearing at Wednesday night's Culpeper County Planning Commission meeting said they wholeheartedly support solar energy.

Before the commission voted to table the issue for 60 days, however, 13 of those speakers urged the commissioners to deny recommending a conditional-use permit for Virginia Solar to construct a 150-acre solar farm on land just off Glen Ella Road between Culpeper and Brandy.

Why? Most said it was because the project was in their neighborhood and they didn’t want to look at it. And they feared it would lower their property values.

The speakers at Wednesday's meeting gave other reasons for not wanting the county first solar farm to become a reality. Many objected to the sound of pile drivers pounding the posts into the ground, posts that would support the thousands of solar panels. There was also the truck traffic the construction phase would create.

One woman, a nurse, contended that electromagnetic waves produced by high-voltage electricity had been linked to breast cancer, while another man is worried that security cameras that reportedly will be installed in the facility might spy on neighbors.

Dairy farmers down the road from the proposed project’s location were concerned about their effects the six months of construction would have on their cattle. Planning Commission Chairman Sanford Reaves agreed, saying that this was untried technology and that he was hesitant to recommend approval of a project that “might cause cows to give green milk.”

County Planning Director Sam McLearen voiced a concern about migrating waterfowl that might mistake the sea of solar panels for a lake and injure themselves trying to land.

And Doug Orye, whose property adjoins the proposed site that is owned by Culpeper businessman Tony Troilo, advised the commission not “to pay Dominion Power any more money. Dominion has enough.”

Virginia Solar plans to sell the 20 megawatts of electricity it will generate at the plant to Dominion.

The farm is one of several such facilities proposed in the Fredericksburg area. Supervisors in Orange and King George counties last month approved solar farms covering 400 and 610 acres, respectively. Sustainable Power Group of Utah wants to build a 3,500-acre farm in western Spotsylvania County that would be one of the biggest on the East Coast.

Dominion began operating a 100-acre solar farm in Remington in Fauquier County in October. 

At the Culpeper meeting this week, loss of farmland to solar projects was also an issue. Elsie Cooper said that it would be “poor stewardship” to allow solar panels to replace crops.

“Don’t let this guinea pig turn into an albatross for you,” she said.

One speaker, however, took a different stance on the controversial issue. James Duckett, who also has property near the proposed site, said that he hoped that “the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors would move into the 21st century.”

Citing a day in the future when fossil fuels are all used up, he added that “now is the time to embrace renewable energy. Solar energy is a no-brainer.”

In a marathon meeting that lasted almost until midnight, commissioners cross-examined Virginia Solar representative Matthew Meares for nearly 45 minutes following his presentation about the project.

Commissioner Sally Underwood questioned whether the solar farm would be of any benefit to Culpeper and others were concerned that the electricity produced would not be directly used to power homes in Culpeper.

At least two commissioners, Josh Milson–Martula and Cindy Thornhill, said that they thought no compromise could be reached and sought a denial recommendation. Both voted against the motion to table the issue because they felt they could not support the request no matter what.

Other commissioners, however, felt that it might be better to postpone action until the Board of Supervisors clarifies its rules concerning solar farms. Those proposed regulations, discussed at Tuesday’s Rules Committee meeting, will come before the full board in February.

In other action Wednesday night, the Planning Commission voted 9-0 to recommend approval of a request by PowerGrid to rezone 100 acres along McDevitt Drive to light industrial to build a data center similar to Teremark.

That facility, according to attorney Butch Davies and PowerGrid representative Michael Armm, would employ about 120 people in high-salary jobs.

This issue will also come before the Board of Supervisors in February.

​Donnie Johnston:

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