THE Spotsylvania Board of Supervisors’ decision to approve one of the largest industrial solar power facilities in the nation on thousands of acres of agriculturally-zoned land in the western part of the county is now a done deal. But by ignoring most of the recommendations of the county’s own Planning Commission, the board set a bad precedent for the county’s future development.
Utah-based Sustainable Power Group LLC, known as sPower, filed applications for three special use permits for three parcels totaling 6,350 acres on which it planned to build a 500-megawatt solar plant, the largest solar facility on the East Coast. However, the site selected is not a remote location, where most solar plants are built, but in a fast-growing county served by Interstate–95 just 60 miles southwest of the nation’s capital.
“In this case, the extent is proposed by the applicant to meet the needs of their end users, which is not the public, but corporate customers” outside Spotsylvania County, the Planning Commission noted.
Although the county’s Comprehensive Plan specifically states that rural and agricultural areas are appropriate places for renewable energy projects, it also states that such facilities “should be sited and designed to minimize detrimental impacts to neighboring properties, uses, and roadways.”
Planning commissioners kept that requirement in mind when they voted to give sPower a special use permit to erect solar panels only on the 245-acre Site A, the smallest and most remote of the three connecting parcels. They also recommended that the SUPs for the two largest parcels, which are adjacent to residential areas, be denied.
But the board ignored the Planning Commission’s recommendations when it voted to approve all three SUPs under conditions that mitigated, but did not eliminate, the most worrisome of the solar plant’s many shortcomings.
Of course, the Planning Commission is an advisory board, and it’s up to elected supervisors, who are ultimately accountable to voters, to make the final call on projects that will affect county residents for decades to come. But overriding the Planning Commission’s recommendations does not come without cost.
The Planning Commission functions as the main bulwark against development that does not advance the interests of county residents or preserve Spotsylvania’s rural identity. This $615 million utility-sized solar project does neither. Its approval sends a clear message to developers that Spotsylvania supervisors are willing to greenlight projects that have minimal benefits for their constituents. Spotsylvania residents should expect more such projects to be forthcoming.
Board Chairman Paul Trampe, the only supervisor who followed the Planning Commission’s recommendations and voted to approve just the smaller of the three parcels, and Courtland District Supervisor David Ross, who voted against all three SUPs, are to be commended for being the only two of seven board members who acted on behalf of the large number of Spotsylvania residents who were vociferously opposed to this mega-solar project on aesthetic, environmental, financial, and lost opportunity grounds.
The deal gives cover to Microsoft, Amazon and other tech companies who have signed contracts with sPower and will now be able to pretend that their power-guzzling data centers are “green.”
Meanwhile, environmentalists, who vigorously objected to cutting down 300 trees for construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, were silent when hundreds of acres of carbon-absorbing timberland were clear-cut in Spotsylvania County to make room for the solar panels. Apparently some trees are more equal than others.