“Good luck, sir,” Spotsylvania County’s top prosecutor Travis Byrd said to Supervisor Greg Benton.
The commonwealth’s attorney had just addressed the crowd that packed the Brock Road Elementary School cafeteria Tuesday night for a town hall meeting local elected officials held to update residents on happenings in the county.
Almost all of the more than 100 residents had come to talk about the proposal for a massive solar facility in the western part of the county, not far from the school. Many attendees wore red shirts or stickers produced by a citizens group reading, “Protect Spotsylvania.”
And the crowd, overwhelmingly against the project and agitated as important meetings on the issue loom, peppered Benton during nearly two hours of back-and-forth about the project.
The supervisor, who is also the board chairman, struggled to get a word in as the crowd wavered between calm question-and-answer periods and chaotic, sometimes angry, exchanges.
A few people left as some residents continued to interrupt with questions or outbursts. During much of the meeting, a man who said he was a Fawn Lake resident and attorney stood on the stage intermittently urging a lawsuit to stop the project.
Regardless of the distractions, residents—many of whom are part of a group formed in response to the proposed solar facility—managed to state their case on various concerns, something they have done at board meetings for months.
And Benton, eventually, managed to give his take on the project.
“I have not made a decision,” the supervisor said, repeating it a few more times as some in the crowd said he seemed as if he was in favor of the proposal and that he didn’t seem concerned about his constituents.
Benton came out in support of the project when it became public earlier this year, but he said at the meeting that a lot has changed since then. He said the issue is complex, “fluid,” with information continuing to come in and county staff working on the details.
He said he has relied on county staff for information, along with details provided by a citizens group and Sustained Power Group, the company proposing the solar facility.
The company, also known as sPower, wants to build a power-generating facility that would use 1.8 million solar panels on tracts of a more than 6,300-acre property in a rural yet populated part of the county. The 500-megawatt project would be the largest of its kind on the East Coast, and sPower has already reached agreements with such companies as Apple and Microsoft to sell the energy the facility would produce.
The proposal was presented early in the year by sPower. The Utah-based company is a major renewable energy corporation with 150 wind and solar projects across the country.
Supervisors will hold a work session on Tuesday about the special-use permit the company seeks. A public hearing with the Planning Commission is set for Dec. 5. The supervisors have the final say on the project.
Thousands of residents live in the area of the site, which is near a power grid hookup the facility would use. A group has formed, mainly of Fawn Lake residents, and they have mounted an aggressive campaign of information gathering on potential impacts.
The group has concerns about environmental and health impacts, property values dropping and impacts on quality of life, among a long list of concerns.
Many residents opposed to the project do not trust sPower officials, with many saying the project is motivated by profit and doesn’t belong in a populated area.
Company officials have said they are working with the county to produce a good project that would prove beneficial.
Residents at Tuesday’s meeting don’t think there is anything good about the proposal.
“We’re your neighbors. Think of the impact on our lives,” a woman said late in the meeting, urging Benton to listen to them. “This is a big deal to us.”
Benton said he also has heard from supporters of the project. He said they often voice their support privately for fear of angering those against the proposal.
The supervisor also told the crowd that he has concerns about such things as the toxic chemical cadmium that would be inside the solar panels sPower wants to use. He also noted other concerns he has that are hot-button issues for residents: water use by the solar site, potential stormwater erosion and the cost of decommissioning when the site closes after 35 years.
To the consternation of some in the crowd, Benton did not mention property values or setbacks from homes near the proposed solar farm.
Also unpopular was Benton pointing out what he deemed positives related to the proposal.
The current property, owned by a timber company, brings in $20,000 in tax revenue a year, while sPower has offered to pay the county $600,000 annually, Benton said.
The crowd countered that the county isn’t sure that payment agreement can be managed legally and that the company would actually pay much more in taxes over the life of the facility than the $600,000 a year would bring if inflation were factored in.
Benton said sPower also has offered to put solar panels on area schools and help pay half of the $7 million needed for work to improve the water system in the area near the site. That work would help sPower hook into the county water system while also improving water pressure for Fawn Lake residents.
The crowd didn’t seem interested in the water proposal.
Alfred King, a Fawn Lake resident and former chairman of the Republican Party who also has a background in finance, told the crowd that he analyzed the proposal for its financial impact to the county. He noted that the project would likely decrease property values in the area, costing the county revenue, and he doubts the annual payment by sPower would be legal.
“The bottom line is—citizens are going to come out on the short end,” he said.
He said residents and Spotsylvania officials need to focus on the special-use permit so restrictions are written into it as a way to protect the county, whether the proposal is approved or not.
If sPower deems the restrictions prohibitive, the company could sue, King said, adding that a well-structured special-use permit would prove an important tool in court.
Benton told the crowd that it’s a complicated issue and that he is relying a great deal on county staff. He said sPower has been working with the county on issues, many of which he said seemed to be addressed.
Fawn Lake resident David Hammond agreed with King’s suggested approach and said the citizen’s group has focused its campaign on getting scientific information to give county officials. He said the county needs to get agreements in writing and included in the special-use permit.
Benton expressed the importance of getting agreements in writing earlier in the meeting, telling the crowd, “If I can’t get it in writing … I’m not gonna support it.”