PHOTO: solar panels (copy)

Sustainable Power Group, also called sPower, wants to build a huge solar farm in Spotsylvania.

The mix of decisions made by the Spotsylvania County Planning Commission last week on a proposed solar plant left some lingering questions.

Those questions now shift to the Board of Supervisors, which will face questions that have so far defied easy answers.

The board is tasked with deciding whether a proposed 500 megawatt solar farm is the positive ray of light the applicant, Utah-based Sustainable Power Group, says it is, or a potentially dangerous gamble, as opponents contend.

In early 2018, the company, also called sPower, applied for three special-use permits to construct the facility in rural western Spotsylvania on land zoned for agricultural use.

The company wants to install about 1.8 million solar panels on three swaths  of timber property totaling 6,300 acres. The site is bordered in areas by homes, including the Fawn Lake neighborhood. Residents have formed groups and come out in force against the project.

Residents and county staff have raised many questions about the proposal, which led to numerous adjustments and concessions by sPower prior to last week’s meeting.

The meeting resulted in more conditions for the project and planted some doubt about its future.

Residents have said the project is too big to be near homes and that it poses potential health and environmental risks. They also are concerned about impacts to property values and say the county could, in the end, be left with a costly mess to clean up.

The company has refuted such claims by residents, saying scientific evidence backs up its position that the facility would be safe and have a positive impact on the county.

“I believe we have addressed all of the key concerns from the community, including the use of public water versus ground water, the agreement not to burn debris on the site and now the removal of cadmium telluride panels,” Charlie Payne, a local attorney representing sPower, said in an email.

He and company officials also have touted the project as a potential economic boon for the county, something opponents refute.

Payne noted a letter sent from John Warren, the director of the state’s Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, to county supervisors supporting the project.

“Virginia’s solar energy marketplace is thriving, with over 3,000 megawatts of solar either under development or in the ground,” Warren states in the letter.

Warren added that the project would allow the solar industry to expand according to the state’s goals while also attracting “many large corporate prospects seeking sites for new operations or expansion.”

Other aspects of the project were on planning commission members’ minds Wednesday night.

They first agreed that the proposal is largely in accord with the county’s comprehensive plan. One member, Richard Thompson, voted against the measure. The commission also added to the already lengthy list of conditions, which take up about 20 pages.

The commission then voted on the three special-use permits for the project, which vary greatly in size.

The commission voted 4–3 to recommend approval of the smallest site—30 megawatts on 245 acres. Members voted against the second largest site—70 megawatts on 905 acres—by a 4–3 vote.

The largest site—400 megawatts on 5,200 acres—went down on a 5–2 vote.

The project site rests in the Livingston District, and the commissioner for the area moved to deny recommendation of all three permits and was seconded by Thompson.

The commission members said little about the project and did not explain their votes.

“We have not heard from the planning commission why it voted the way that it did,” Payne wrote in the email. “There did seem to be many folks on the fence on which direction to go, but as you know, this is only the first step in the process.”

The board of supervisors scheduled a special meeting on the solar project for Feb. 5 at 4:30 p.m. at the Marshall building.

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Scott Shenk: 540/374-5436

sshenk@freelancestar.com