Culpeper could place a cap on the size permitted for individual large-scale solar projects in the county.

The Board of Supervisors Rules Committee on Tuesday asked staff to explore the potential limit after hearing from a Spotsylvania County official about the massive 500-megawatt project approved for construction there on 6,500 acres.

The Rules Committee declined to recommend that solar plants be limited to industrially zoned land, as was recently done in Madison County and as a local citizens’ group has strongly advocated.

Land-clearing controls

At the meeting, Richard Street, deputy director of environmental codes for Spotsylvania County, shared a presentation on “large-scale grading projects,” as it relates to the approved project in the neighboring county, known as sPower. It will place 1.8 million solar panels on 3,500 acres on the larger site, making it the largest project on the East Coast and the third largest in the country, Street said.

“They came in with mass grading plans and we said, no—don’t you dare,” he said. Spotsylvania ultimately decided to allow the project to be built—and land to be cleared—400 acres at a time.

“The scary part is our topography is very similar to your topography here,” Street said. “It’s got to be some of the steepest, nastiest clay soil we ever saw, so it’s gonna run and it’s gonna run fast,” he said of stormwater leaving the site.

In mentioning “your topography,” the deputy director referenced the proposed Cricket Solar project on 1,335 acres of farmland along Algonquin Trail in southern Culpeper near the Rapidan River.

For the Spotsylvania project, the developer will build “huge perimeter controls” first, Street said, before establishing, in required areas, basins or special ditches to manage runoff and erosion.

“When they have the second section ready, they can actually clear the first because they are not going to do mass grading,” he said. The 400-acre limit is based on the bar from previous developments in Spotsylvania, Street said.

In overseeing the project, including erosion and sediment control and stormwater management inspections, his department has had to drastically increase its fees to cover the cost of bringing in 18 outside inspectors to check the massive site, he said.

In Spotsylvania County, solar plant developers are charged a monthly “land disturbance inspection fee” of $7,000 per month for projects spanning 400 to 1,000 acres to as much as $44,000 per month for 3,000 acres and greater.

Cost for cleanup

Street also spoke about the cost associated with “decommissioning” or dismantling of solar projects after a projected 35-year lifespan. That cost for the Spotsylvania project was estimated at $36.7 million, not including some $25 million in scrap value for the solar equipment.

Solar companies include the potential recycling value to offset total decommissioning costs, Street said, but that idea has been rejected there.

“We don’t believe in recycling mainly because we don’t think it exists. It doesn’t exist yet because most of the solar fields haven’t reached their lifespan,” he said.

In Spotsylvania, the solar plant developer is required to post a bond to cover decommissioning costs, and the amount will be evaluated every two years to ensure it is adequate to cover costs for cleanup.

“We are just trying to get ahead of the game and stay in front of the curve because the big wheel is coming and we know there are going to be more,” Street said of solar developments following existing transmission lines. “They are just coming in one on top of another.”

Potential partnership?

In Culpeper County, erosion and sediment control and stormwater management is overseen by the state Department of Environmental Quality, noted Culpeper County Supervisor Steve Walker, chairman of the Rules Committee.

But according to Culpeper County Attorney Bobbi Jo Alexis, state code permits Culpeper to take over the function with assistance from another locality or a third-party professional.

Culpeper County Supervisor Sue Hansohn asked Street if Spotsylvania would entertain helping another county with the function as it relates to mass grading of solar plant sites. He responded he had “already put out feelers” regarding the question, but had yet to get a response from the elected board.

“It’s clear in the state code that we can,” Street added, saying local control of land-clearing activities has allowed greater flexibility for Spotsylvania to manage its own projects.

Hansohn, a proponent of solar projects in Culpeper, said it could be a possibility for the two localities to work together on the function, and Street agreed.

Limiting project size

Following Street’s presentation, the Rules Committee talked about potential changes to the Culpeper County Utility Scale Solar Facility Development Policy. Last fall, the Board of Supervisors rejected a 20-megawatt solar plant proposal along Glen Ella Road, then later approved an 80-megawatt project in Stevensburg.

They developer of the Cricket Solar project recently submitted its third revised site plan for its 80-megawatt project. Another potential 20-megawatt project is in the works, Culpeper County Planning Director McLearen said.

“That’s quite extensive when it comes to acreage,” he said.

In recent months as citizen and Planning Commission concerns have been expressed about the Cricket Solar plan, county staff and elected officials have been taking another look at the solar policy, McLearen said. Some of the “big, broad-based ideas” discussed included limiting the size of individual projects, and limiting solar plants to industrial land, he said.

The county planning director said he is concerned about mass-grading for the projects and associated stormwater management concerns. Requiring the projects to be constructed in phases would address that concern, McLearen said, as well as limiting project scope. In addition to generating a lot of issues with grading and erosion, he said, larger projects impact a greater number of surrounding properties.

McLearen noted he has been hearing that concern from neighbors and others since the first solar application came across his desk.

Industrial zoning rejected

As for limiting solar plants to industrially zoned land, McLearen said in his 19 years in the county Planning Department that public utilities—including solar and wind fields—have been permitted, with a special-use permit, on agricultural land.

Hansohn said that process should continue.

“We have a comprehensive plan, we know where our zones are, so if that was an option, how would you foresee going about finding an area in our county that we would zone that would be large enough to support a (large-scale solar) project?” she said.

McLearen said that would be difficult, noting most of the industrial land in the county is located near major highways or railways. “We don’t have large chunks of industrial out in the county—for good reason, because it’s typically seen as a competing interest to the rural,” he said.

Someone could apply for a re-zoning, McLearen said, but the comprehensive plan would not likely support it. Hansohn said, “It’s just not a good idea,” to limit solar projects to industrial land.

Walker said it should remain a consideration, but added, “Under the present situation I don’t see we have really that much industrial land. If we have to rezone something in order to put this on, if we wanted to do that, it would be a whole much more complicated process.”

As for limiting solar project size, Alexis, the county attorney, said Culpeper could legally do that.

“I don’t think you could limit any applicant to how big their land is, but you could put a cap, project-wise, in terms of land disturbance or how much land (the solar) panels would cover,” she said.

Walker, who last fall voted against both Culpeper solar projects, said years ago when such developments started to be discussed, the anticipation was that they would occupy 50 to 200 acres.

“But they seem to be huge and a Spotsylvania (project) could show up here, too,” he said. “We need to prepare for that kind of situation,” Walker added in supporting a project size limit.

Solar in South Culpeper

Hansohn said it has already been determined that large-scale solar projects in Culpeper should be located in southern portions of the county, following the Dominion transmission line.

“This is where we said we wanted it, we have an application and now we’re saying, maybe not,” she said. “If we try to open it up to some of the other areas in the county we’re going to have more resistance because it’s near big subdivisions, or better farmland.”

McLearen said the county had not formally designated certain areas for solar development. He conceded that staff-generated GIS maps show areas potentially more suitable, that were adjacent to the power line and on flatter ground, while steering developers away from areas with prime farmland and historic resources.

He said adding a cap on project size would strengthen the county’s current policy by encouraging smaller phases.

McLearen specified that the 400-acre cap, such as the one in Spotsylvania, was too large for Culpeper.

“I would like to see that number a lot smaller here,” he said. The recommendation from the Culpeper Soil & Water Conservation District is land clearing on no more than 50 acres at a time, McLearen said.

Culpeper County Administrator John Egertson said he was “very confident” staff could develop revisions to the solar policy to limit the amount of grading that takes place on any given site. Staff will present the proposal at next month’s Rules Committee meeting.

Citizens’ response

In attendance at Tuesday’s meeting were various neighbors of the rejected, approved and pending solar projects in Culpeper, including Susan Ralston, president of the recently formed Citizens for Responsible Solar group. She lives along Algonquin Trail and has been vocal in her opposition to Cricket Solar.

In a statement Tuesday afternoon, she said the Culpeper County Board of Supervisors—before making any decisions—needs to fully research all issues associated with large-scale solar, including project size, erosion, stormwater runoff, soil testing, construction traffic and more.

Ralston added she was “extremely disturbed” by Hansohn’s comments at the meeting and her refusal to consider industrial zoning only for utility-scale solar projects.

“Ms. Hansohn then went on to say that in considering large-scale solar projects, the Board had chosen South Culpeper’s neighborhood, as they knew it would face the least opposition from the residents. This comment was deeply insulting to the residents of the area, insinuating that they are valued less than other community members by their own elected officials,” Ralston said. “Ms. Hansohn, a representative and resident of the northern Catalpa district of Culpeper County, would be virtually unaffected by the proposed solar complex.”

Speaking on behalf of Citizens for Responsible Solar, Ralston renewed the call for county officials to delay consideration of the latest application from Cricket Solar and any future projects to ensure the planning commission has adequate time to review the changes.

“The consequences for the county, the environment and its residents are too important to approve any new projects at this time,” she said.

Prior to Tuesday’s meeting, Cricket Solar representatives met with the Star-Exponent to provide a briefing on their newly amended application and to answer questions about it. Look for the full story in an upcoming edition of the Culpeper Star-Exponent.

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