Corn crop

August’s corn crop ripens on a farm along Culpeper’s Algonquin Trail, where Cricket Solar LLC proposed a 1,500-acre electrical plant. The proposal has since been withdrawn.

The region’s leading conservation group is urging Culpeper County to create an ordinance to govern future plans for utility-scale solar plants.

To craft those rules, the Piedmont Environmental Council suggests that Culpeper officials seize on the current breather while Cricket Solar LLC revises, for the fourth time, its proposal to build an electrical generating facility in southern Culpeper. On Aug. 26, Cricket withdrew its application for a permit to build the plant.

Christopher Hawk, a PEC land-use representative for Culpeper, Orange and Madison counties, outlines the group’s proposal in an editorial-page column in Sunday’s Star-Exponent.

PEC suggests Culpeper use the “intermission” in Cricket’s application “to properly prepare for the future” involving large-sale solar power plants, Hawk wrote.

Such an ordinance, he adds, “would provide business certainty to future developers and public certainty to taxpayers.”

Developers could be more certain about the siting of their solar plants if the new county ordinance was more explicit about where they can, and cannot, be built, Hawk said in an interview Friday. The ordinance would also specify a solar project’s maximum size.

The first solar facility proposed in Culpeper was 178 acres near Brandy Station. Cricket’s latest proposal includes 1,600 acres along Algonguin Trail near the Rapidan River.

Before backing away from the idea early this year, the Board of Supervisors had considered a staff proposal to limit the total acreage of utility-scale solar projects to 2,400 acres or 240 megawatts, enough electricity to power all of the homes in Culpeper County.

Culpeper Supervisor Steve Walker, chairman of the governing board’s Rules Committee, has said he favors limiting the size of utility-scale solar projects.

This Tuesday, when the Rules Committee meets, staff will present a proposal to limit how many acres can be graded at one time on a solar-plant site, to phase the development of large projects and better control erosion and rainwater runoff.

The county’s Utility-Scale Solar Facility Development Policy can provide the foundation for a new ordinance, supplemented by language from other counties’ ordinances governing solar facilities, PEC’s Hawk said. He specifically mentioned Madison County’s ordinance, which limits solar plants to industrially-zoned land.

The Warrenton-based conservation group also urges Culpeper to update its “Area of Historic Interest” maps in the county’s Comprehensive Plan. The twin studies that support those maps are 25 and 11 years old, the PEC representative said.

While there’s a pause in solar-plant proposals, Culpeper has an opportunity to provide better guidance to its appointed and elected officials, Hawk said.

“The county should be doing its due diligence to update its policy documents that many of the (Planning Commission) members, who are obviously upset by these applications, at least have some certainty on which direction the county will go in, so they’re comfortable with how to make decisions going forward,” he said.

“It’s important to know what resources you have, and visuals are, mostly, the best way to do that,” Hawk added. “Take a quick look at a map and if there’s something important there—if the county recognizes those resources’ importance—decisions are much easier to make than by doing tons and tons of reading. Maps are the way to go about quick, effective decision-making.”

Planning Director Sam McLearen threw cold water on the mapping idea, he said.

The planner said staff might propose that Culpeper update resource maps when it next revises its Comprehensive Plan, the county’s blueprint for land-use decisions, Hawk said.

But that would mean the historic-site maps wouldn’t be improved for years, he said.

“It’s extremely important for that update to occur now, not in five or 10 years,” he said. “... It makes no sense not to do so now, especially when highly intensive projects—especially solar plants—are being proposed in much of the county.”

“Basically, (McLearen) politely told me ‘No, we’re not going to do anything,’ ” Hawk said. “It’s disappointing they’re not looking at the county’s resources and properly documenting them.”

In the early 2000s, Culpeper amassed a lot of research on historic sites in the county. It has identified many sites as important, but it hasn’t included them in county maps consulted by developers and planning officials, Hawk said.

“They’ve paid the money to do the research, but they’re not showcasing its uses in decision-making,” he said.

The Piedmont Environmental Council promotes and protects the Virginia Piedmont’s rural economy, natural resources, history and beauty. It serves Culpeper, Orange, Madison, Rappahannock, Fauquier, Loudoun, Albemarle, Clarke and Greene counties.

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