Solar power generation is coming to Culpeper.
“It is time for the county to move into the 21st century,” said Supervisor Sue Hansohn. “We need to embrace clean energy – it’s not rocket science.”
It was 11:20 p.m. Tuesday when Hansohn moved that the Board of Supervisors approve a conditional use permit request from Florida-based NextEra Energy Resources to operate a utility scale solar farm on up to 1,000 acres near Stevensburg.
NextEra, which bills itself as the world’s largest generator of renewable energy, recently acquired the project from Texas-based Greenwood Energy.
Supervisor Gary Deal seconded Hansohn’s motion that passed 3-2 with Chairman Bill Chase and Supervisor Brad Rosenberger abstaining because of perceived conflicts of interest. Voting against the solar farm were Supervisors Jack Frazier and Steve Walker.
The split decision came after three hours of public comment from an engaged community of landowners who will financially benefit from the estimated 40-year project, people supportive of alternative energy and frustrated neighbors emotionally vested in preserving the rural landscape where the solar panels will be placed, following a two-mile corridor of the Dominion Power transmission line.
The project will generate an estimated $1.2 million in annual lease payments to five landowners, including Chase, over the solar farm’s anticipated 40-year life, according to the applicant. The Boad of Supervisors chairman disclosed earlier this year that he had entered into a contract with the solar developer to put 2.3 acres of his land into the project. That’s why Chase did not vote on it Tuesday night.
Rosenberger did not vote because he said he had done business in the past with one of the landowners.
More than half of the land that will be developed with solar panels belongs to Belle Meade Farms, which is run by patriarch Stanley Hawkins and four adult children living on the farm, including Crystal Hawkins Tingler.
At the public hearing, she noted her family’s deep roots in the property, saying the solar development would not remove their agricultural positon and that they would continue with traditional farming. To survive in farming, her family learned early on to diversify, Tingler said.
“In a volatile market, we always have and always will change,” she said, describing decades of evolution at Belle Meade Farm from dairy to beef to crops.
“We plant what the market demands,” Tingler said.
In this case, it’s harvesting the power of the sun, she said, noting the solar project would be in her own backyard.
Stanley Hawkins described solar development as a step forward for preserving the land into the future.
“This is my land, my choice, my future, my right,” he said.
Property owner David Kelsey spoke at public hearing about his 200-plus acres included in the project.
“I’m glad that people have enjoyed the view over the years, but we have to maintain the property and pay the taxes,” he said, noting that Blackjack Road, also known as the historic Old Carolina Road, is not a tourist attraction as some have claimed. “This is an opportunity to increase productivity of a remote piece of land.”
The project, over its lifetime, is expected to generate $1.7 million in county tax revenues.
Others spoke against the solar facility, including Stevensburg farmer Joyce Brown and her husband, Wayne.
“How can this be good for agriculture or the historic land?” she said. “We will be able to see a mile of solar panels in our front yard.”
Wayne Brown described the approved project as a solar power plant, saying such operations are inefficient and therefore very expensive to operate.
Blackjack Road resident Gloria Stegmaier said the massive project would change the face of Culpeper forever while Stevensburg resident Desy Campbell said profiting off the “sun rush” could be a fantasy eventually replaced by a new and bigger operation.
“This is agricultural land—not industrial,” she said.
Stevensburg resident Don Haight, outspoken against the project from the beginning, said it is “being rammed down our throats,” chastising board members “for making a deal with the devil.” He called for setbacks from the project of at least 600 feet.
Culpeper County Planning Director Sam McLearen started the night’s presentations with an explanation of the extensive staff review process of the application that began in April.
In recommending approval of the special permit to operate the solar project on agricultural land, staff imposed 32 conditions covering everything from setbacks (150-feet from adjoining property lines), and screening (multiple rows of trees) to soil testing (at the start and end of the project) and permitted hours of construction (not on Sunday).
The applicant presented a scaled-back application Tuesday that removed nearly 200 acres from the project, primarily near a Civil War study area along Blackjack Road. NextEra Energy Resources project manager Shanelle Wilson provided an overview of the work saying it’s an anticipated eight- to 10- month construction project. The conditional use permit approved Tuesday is good for two years.
Wilson brought a sample solar panel to the hearing and was grilled extensively by Supervisor Frazier about what it’s made of, implying its composition included potentially toxic metals that would pollute the soil and water. Stuart McCurdy with NextEra said the panels contain no hazardous materials and are made of silicon, aluminum and glass.
In addition to the 32 staff conditions, the solar company also agreed to other legal requirements urged by the county attorney that would make the permit biding to any and all successive companies that might take over the project, provide information on NextEra’s business structure and disclose any changes to the application within 90 days.