Following another marathon session filled with public opposition, the Culpeper County Planning Commission Wednesday night recommended denial of a conditional use permit to build a large solar power facility on 178 acres of farmland along Glen Ella Road between Stevensburg and Brandy Station.
“We felt this was the wrong place for this type of facility,” said Planning Commission Vice Chairman Lou Price, filling in for Chairman Sanford Reaves, who was absent. “It’s impossible to properly screen it and at our level we couldn’t see approving it.”
Concern about impacts to neighbors of the utility-scale project, Culpeper North Solar, is what had the planning commission most concerned, Price said.
Planning Commission member Cindy Thornhill made the motion to deny the application and the vote to do so was 6-1 against issuing the conditional use permit for the project proposed by Virginia Solar. The Richmond-based company submitted its application in November to build the county’s first solar farm, and recently partnered on it with Cypress Creek Renewables, based in Santa Monica, California.
Voting against Wednesday’s measure was Planning Commission member Walter Burton, who wanted to give the applicant more time to address concerns. Member Paul Bates abstained due to a potential conflict of interest. The meeting lasted four hours, ending around 11 p.m.
Project developer Matthew Meares could not be reached for comment, and did not attend the meeting at which his project was denied.
The Planning Commission based its vote on what it felt was the project’s noncompliance with the comprehensive plan in that the general location and character of the proposed use did not match.
“We have to make sure it’s not injurious to the health, safety, welfare and property values of adjacent landowners,” Price said. “It’s still a huge unknown.”
The Culpeper County Board of Supervisors recently voted to commission an independent study of potential property value impacts to neighbors of large solar projects. Results of the study are not anticipated until later this year. Still, the Planning Commission’s negative recommendation on the Culpeper North Solar Project will go to the board at its August 7 night meeting, according to Culpeper County Planning Director Sam McLearen.
He said staff recommended Wednesday that the case be postponed to give the applicant more time to work through revisions to potential conditions of approval for the case. The applicant, represented at the meeting by Steve Evans and Michael Waylan of Cypress Creek, also requested a delay, but later withdrew that request. The planning commission was ready to proceed with the case that had been advertised for a public hearing, McLearen said.
Neighbor Doug Orye, whose backyard would face the proposed project, felt the planning commission made the right decision. He, like other neighbors of the project and another larger one south of Stevensburg, have consistently expressed concerns about impact to their property values in addition to the high level of traffic and noise during construction, inadequate buffering, protection of historic and agricultural resources and view sheds.
“This is an industrial use on farmland,” said Orye, an industrial electrical contractor with a shop and a house on the mostly open fields neighboring the requested solar plant. “None of us are geared up for that.”
He felt any solar farms should be placed on industrially zoned land with limits to size of the project. Orye said he didn’t think solar fit anywhere in Culpeper County, emphasizing its rich historic resources related to the Civil War and early American history.
“Culpeper County is unique with all the history we take for granted that’s under our feet every day,” he said.
Noted Civil War historian Bud “Clark” Hall, a Culpeper resident, agreed, saying that local history is a huge economic driver for the county and needs to be preserved.
“This project would severely denigrate the historic resources in and around this area,” he said.
Land owned by the American Battlefield Trust, with which Hall has long been associated, would look down on the solar fields, seriously negating the view shed, he said.
“This property sits in the vortex of Civil War Culpeper,” Hall said.
The 1863 Battle of Brandy Station was fought nearby and all around the subject property; it remains the largest cavalry battle ever fought on North American soil.
“Culpeper’s historic resources are vital to the economic lifeblood of this county,” Hall said.