Whitehouse Solar Site

Members of the Spotsylvania County Planning Commission take a riding tour of the Whitehouse Solar Site with Dominion Energy’s Sarah Perkinson and Richard Bartilotti in Louisa on Wednesday, May 9, 2018.The Louisa farm has about 83K panels; the Spotsy site would have about 2M.

The company proposing a massive solar farm in rural Spotsylvania County is touting a recent survey that it says shows widespread support for the project.

But at a public hearing Wednesday, the critics greatly outnumbered the proponents of the proposed 3,500-acre solar farm near Fawn Lake. About 40 people raised concerns or outright opposed the plan by Utah-based Sustainable Power Group, known as sPower, while just a handful of speakers supported it.

The day before, sPower sent an email to The Free Lance–Star with the results of a poll in which nearly half of the 400 respondents, all from Spotsylvania, said they would “strongly support” a 500-megawatt solar farm in the western part of the county. Another 18 percent said they would support it but felt less strongly, while 26 percent indicated they would oppose the project and 7 percent offered no opinion. The company hired Alexandria-based Public Opinion Strategies to conduct the poll, which has a margin of error of 4.9 percentage points.

That survey never came up at the public hearing, which took place in front of the Planning Commission at the Marshall Center’s auditorium. The Planning Commission—which held another lengthy hearing earlier this month—could make a recommendation on the solar farm to the Board of Supervisors at its next meeting Jan. 2.

Wednesday’s hearing got off to a contentious start. Spotsylvania resident Victor Meadows, who hopes to sell property to sPower, spoke first, saying he was amazed by what he called “the campaign of fear that has been launched to reject a new solar project in Spotsylvania.” He went on to deny claims that the solar panels would be toxic.

A man in the audience interrupted Meadows, asking him: “How much are you going to make?”

Planning Commission Chairman Gregg Newhouse interjected: “Folks, that’s the last time I’m going to accept an outburst like that.” The audience ignored Newhouse’s subsequent request to refrain from applauding speakers.

Some opponents took a less emotional approach, including a few men who read a PowerPoint presentation that painstakingly outlined all of the reasons they believe the project violates Spotsylvania’s Comprehensive Plan. Fawn Lake resident Sean Fogarty helped prepare that presentation and took offense when attorney Charlie Payne, who represents sPower, asked people to “peel back from the hysteria.” Payne later apologized for using the word hysteria.

The audience perhaps took the most exception to Payne’s assertion that the solar farm would not impact property values, laughing loudly after the comment. Payne cited an appraiser, but a real estate agent countered that she lost two prospective homebuyers because of the potential for a solar farm nearby.

Some people said they have nothing against renewable energy, but that the solar farm—which would be the largest on the East Coast—is just too big to be in such close proximity to homes. A pilot told the Planning Commission that he’s flown over vast solar facilities in Colorado but that they are much more isolated than the one proposed in Spotsylvania, which would neighbor the gated Fawn Lake subdivision.

SPower says it would plant vegetation and trees to shield the facility. The solar panels would be from 100 feet to 400 feet from neighboring properties, but the county Planning Department is suggesting that they be at least 350 feet from adjacent land with homes.

Each resident could speak for up to 3 minutes at the hearing, but the time limit increased to 5 minutes for those representing groups.

Vivian Stanley of Spotsylvania got 5 minutes after indicating that she was speaking on behalf of “we the people.” The solar company, she said, should be required to buy property from anyone who does not want to live next to “this monster.” “And, golly, how many people might that be?” she continued. “It’s the ones who don’t want to be poisoned.”

About 30 percent of the 1.8 million solar panels will include cadmium telluride, a toxic material that some residents say could contaminate the ground. Solar company reps say the compound—which they note can be found in fertilizer and other everyday products—will be sealed into the panels and poses no environmental risk.

Residents will not be able to speak publicly about the project at the next meeting Jan. 2 because the commission voted to end the public-hearing process. Some people said that action prevents them from publicly rebutting new claims by sPower or changes to its application, giving the company the upper hand.

Residents, however, will have more opportunities to speak at public hearings in front of the Board of Supervisors, which will have the final say over the proposed solar farm.

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Jeff Branscome: 540/374-5402 jbranscome@freelancestar.com

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