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Caroline officials, residents consider a slew of solar projects
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RESIDENTS HAVE NEGATIVE REACTION TO POWER PROJECTS

Caroline officials, residents consider a slew of solar projects

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When the Caroline County Correctional Unit facility known as Camp 2 was built in the Dawn area in the 1960s, some residents weren’t aware until construction began.

“They didn’t ask my grandparents if they wanted a prison camp at their back door,” said Mechonda Williams, whose family on her mother Marian Anderson's side owns property nearby. “Before they knew anything, the bricks were being laid.”

Williams and others are now doing their part to ensure residents in the community are informed about another large project—a proposed solar farm that would span 914 acres to the south and west of Camp 2.

A portion of the land has been identified as part of the Dawn Village Growth Area in the county’s Comprehensive Plan.

The area is a mix of farmland, forest and single-family homes.

Residents said they’ve seen families move to the area and would like to see more population growth and resources poured into Dawn. They believe a solar farm of that size would make it a less attractive option for residential and business growth.

“Give us a grocery store. Help us develop our community as you have developed Bowling Green and Ladysmith,” Williams said. “We don’t want metal paneling that’s in the ground that can’t talk back to us.”

Williams and a group of Dawn residents spoke out against the proposal by developer Orsted Onshore North America at a Planning Commission meeting on Oct. 28.

The Planning Commission recommended the Board of Supervisors deny the project by a 4–2 vote. But the board could still decide to grant the special exception permit after it holds a public hearing in either February or March.

The project is one of nine proposed solar farms in the county. The others are in areas zoned as either Rural Preservation or Agricultural Preservation/Flood Plain.

The Planning Commission deadlocked 2–2 on three other solar projects, but those proposals will move on to the Board of Supervisors unless the developers withdraw.

There will be a Board of Supervisors public hearing on Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. at the Community Services Center in Milford to discuss the Whalebone Solar project, which would take up 30 acres on State Route 2 in Woodford, 3 1/2 miles from the Caroline–Spotsylvania County border.

Residents throughout the county have expressed concerns that if solar farms are allowed to be built, wildlife will be displaced, stormwater runoff could become a major issue and the bucolic scenery that Caroline offers would be lost.

“I cannot see marring the face of Caroline County with these facilities,” Bowling Green District Planning Commissioner Bob Schwartz said. “I stand firmly opposed to them regardless of size …. I’m asking if the dollar signs are in your eyes, let’s put the dollar signs away because it’s not going to be good for the county. It’s not going to be good for the people.”

GETTING PUBLIC INPUT

Two proposed major solar projects in Caroline—Frog Solar and CC Solar on Paige Road in Woodford—cover nearly 2,600 acres.

The seven other projects proposed cover a total of 835.5 acres. Those projects are on Woodford Road (348.5 acres), Industrial Drive in Milford (two parcels totaling 161 acres), Quarters Road in Woodford (145 acres), Balty Road near Ladysmith (two parcels totaling 73 acres) and Fredericksburg Turnpike in Woodford (30 acres).

The Industrial Road project is located in a flood plain, and is on the Planning Commission’s agenda Thursday.

Woodford residents have voiced strong opposition to the Paige and Woodford Road facilities, the latter of which is also in a flood plain.

Tim Tobin, owner of Swallow Hill Farm in Woodford, wrote in a letter to the Board of Supervisors and the Planning Commission that, in his opinion, solar facilities don’t belong on land zoned Rural Preservation or Agricultural Preservation.

However, the applications for special exception permits began to roll in to the county from the solar industry after supervisors voted May 25 to create the Solar Energy Overlay District, which includes all areas designated as Agricultural or Rural Preservation if they meet certain criteria.

Three public hearings have been scheduled at upcoming Board of Supervisors meetings.

The Racehorse Solar project on Quarters Road near Cedon will be discussed at a meeting Jan. 11. At 1,682 acres, CC Solar is the largest project, and a public hearing on it is scheduled for Jan. 25.

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Woodford residents started a petition to encourage county officials to deny the projects in that area.

Tobin said solar plants are inefficient when considering the amount of land consumed. He said they undermine residents’ property values and he believes the bill for decommissioning the project or restoring the land once the leases end will be passed on to taxpayers.

“Despite current discussions regarding decommissioning, the reality is that this rural land will be lost forever,” Tobin wrote in a letter to the Board of Supervisors and Planning Commission. “The proposed industrial-scale solar projects are for terms of 35 years with additional extensions which could continue indefinitely.”

The project in Dawn is the only proposal that infringes on an area intended for residential growth. Residents said they’re concerned granting an exception would set an unwelcome precedent.

“My message to the board is if you overturn what the Planning Commission has denied then you’ll open the door for other development to come in and say they want to build in designated growth areas,” Dawn resident Cynthia Green said. “That’s my main concern.”

Board of Supervisors Chairman Reggie Underwood, who represents the Reedy Church District where the Frog Solar project would be located, said he’s going to listen to his constituents when casting a vote. He also said he’s going to weigh each solar project on its own merit.

“The vote that I have as one of the six board members belongs to the citizens of Reedy Church,” Underwood said. “I’m going to ensure all of their questions and concerns are met before anything is ever done in Reedy Church. They will carry the weight.”

PROS AND CONS

If the Oct. 28 Planning Commission meeting is any indication, residents of Underwood’s district are opposed to the project. None of the several residents who spoke at that meeting supported the solar plant.

Dawn resident Ernest Rollins noted that only paid representatives of the solar companies and the landowners who would profit from renting out the properties have voiced support during public comment sessions.

“It’s not a farm. It’s a production facility,” Rollins said. “But instead of being good businessmen and going into the rural areas, paying their share to clear the land, to put in infrastructure, they want to walk right into a community where people have been living all their lives and build this huge plant and show no respect for the community or the people that have dwelled there whatsoever.”

The land in Dawn is owned by Kevin Engel of Engel Farms. Engel said the Hanover County-based business was started in the 1990s and he didn’t inherit any farmland from his family.

The Engel family farms in 19 counties in Virginia. They produce food, fiber and energy for 16,000 people per year, he said.

“The farm is big,” Engel said. “But it doesn’t mean I have a big fat wallet. Farming is very tough. There are huge ups and downs.”

Engel said leasing the farm to Orsted Onshore North America and allowing the company to place solar panels there would earn him funds to continue farming other land.

Tobin doesn’t agree with that mindset from his fellow farmers.

“It would not be respectful to my neighbors and it would not save my farm for the community or for future generations,” Tobin said of leasing to solar companies. “It may be the best way for me to make money from my property. But it would not help to feed our community. Rather than being an asset to our neighbors and our community, it would become an eyesore and a disappointment.”

Two Planning Commissioners agreed with Engel. Port Royal District representative Carol Horton and Madison District commissioner George Wieber voted in favor of the Frog Solar project and have supported the other proposals. Horton said allowing solar farms would preserve the rural character of the county by limiting land for housing developments.

Horton noted that the Board of Supervisors voted to create the solar overlay district and she believes the county should encourage its use.

“County officials have access to info that the public doesn’t know about,” Horton said. “We have spent almost three years visiting solar farms and studying the solar farms and it’s taken us that long to get to this point. So our job now is to educate the public on this … If we don’t want solar farms we should’ve said [in May] that we don’t want them.”

Representatives from Orsted Onshore North America promised the Planning Commission they would be good neighbors if permitted to build and would help the Dawn community with broadband and other pressing needs.

The developer touts the Dawn project by saying it will generate enough electricity to power 13,400 homes, create 200 family-wage jobs and generate more than $9 million in tax revenue over 40 years.

Dawn resident Timothy Claiborne and others responded that the homes the solar farm powers likely won’t be in Caroline, the jobs aren’t sustainable after construction and the tax revenue is paltry when examined on a year-to-year basis.

“That’s $255,000 a year,” Rollins said. “That’s an insult for a county with the history of this county.”

Taft Coghill Jr: 540/374-5526

tcoghill@freelancestar.com

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