sPower

Trucks carry equipment to the construction site of a solar farm in Spotsylvania County on Jan. 23.

Orange County is seeing red over work-truck traffic related to a massive solar power facility’s construction in Spotsylvania County.

Orange recently filed a lawsuit in circuit court over impacts county officials claim big trucks working on the Sustainable Power Group project are having on its rural roads. The suit not only seeks to keep the trucks off roads in Orange, but asks for work on the project to be stopped.

Crews have been at work for months on the first—and most extensive—phase of one of the nation’s largest solar projects, transforming sections of fields and woodlands in the Wilderness in preparation for 1.8 million solar panels. The panels will supply energy to the grid—electricity that’s already been contracted for use by tech giants Apple and Microsoft, along with the University of Richmond.

The project has been controversial from the beginning, with neighboring property owners fighting it vehemently before the Spotsylvania Board of Supervisors approved the project, 5–2, with numerous requirements dictated by the county.

The lawsuit names Spotsylvania County and two entities of the Sustainable Power Group, the Utah-based company building the solar facility.

The suit focuses on a Spotsylvania special-use permit for the solar project that prohibits tractor–trailers using State Route 3 from going directly to and from the work site on Orange Plank Road. The route the trucks are using instead runs from Route 3 to State Route 20, then Gold Dale Road and onto Orange Plank Road.

The lawsuit claims that Spotsylvania violated Orange’s “lawful integrity” by sending trucks onto Orange County roads, claiming that the trucks are causing “mud pits” along the roads. The suit also states that Spotsylvania “usurped” the Virginia Department of Transportation’s “lawful jurisdiction” by dictating which roads the trucks can use for the project.

According to the suit, there has been a “massive” spike in truck traffic that is causing damage.

The suit doesn’t name VDOT as a defendant but criticizes the Fredericksburg District, claiming it made decisions for the Orange roads, which are in VDOT’s Louisa District. VDOT did not respond to questions about the lawsuit.

The roads in question are maintained by VDOT. Orange states it will lose maintenance funding needed for other repairs because of work to fix the roads on the route.

Orange claims Spotsylvania officials are protecting “the wealthy neighborhoods” in their county, such as the gated community of Fawn Lake, from the traffic and instead impacting Orange residents “who are not politically connected or located in million-dollar homes.”

The suit claims the route has one “hairpin turn” that has been turned into a “mud pit.” Hay has recently been spread on the road shoulder at the turn, but there appeared to be little damage or mud.

At recent Spotsylvania Board of Supervisors meetings, Supervisor Barry Jett has claimed sPower trucks have been violating the SUP by using Orange Plank Road and making deliveries at prohibited times.

An Orange businessman took the counter-position, saying the project has sent too many construction vehicles onto Orange County’s roads.

“The volume of traffic is unbelievable,” said Ernie Johnson, owner of Johnson Funeral Home on Route 20. He has spoken about the issue at an Orange Board of Supervisors meeting and said one of his employees who lives along the route recently counted more than 50 trucks on a recent Saturday.

Spotsylvania’s SUP dictates that tractor–trailers cannot access Orange Plank Road from Route 3, but it does not specify a route the trucks must take. Orange signs and a large digital display are set up on Route 3 at the turn to Orange Plank Road, telling solar delivery trucks to not turn left. Doing so can result in a $500 fine, according to the signs.

Spotsylvania spokeswoman Michelle McGinnis said the county “can’t comment on pending litigation.”

In an email, Charlie Payne, a local attorney representing sPower, said the company is aware of the suit and is addressing it, but cannot talk about details.

From the beginning, Payne wrote, sPower “made no secret about the fact that during construction there will be increased traffic and activity. In this regard, sPower must follow the special use permit conditions passed by Spotsylvania County, including restrictions to certain construction traffic access to the site. sPower is complying with these conditions, which are closely monitored by Spotsylvania County.”

He added that the company continues work on the site, hiring 300 employees and has “contributed over $1 million to local charities and community improvements, and will invest over $650 million in this project.”

The county has cited sPower for several zoning violations in the past, but said the project currently has no violations.

Scott Shenk: 540/374-5436

sshenk@freelancestar.com

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