Northern Virginia pollsters for the Donald Trump 2020 campaign recently surveyed a sampling of Culpeper County voters about the proposed, utility-scale Cricket Solar project encompassing 1,800 acres of farmland along Algonquin Trail near Raccoon Ford.

A layered issue that will likely be a focus of upcoming local elections, the solar initiative continues to draw strong reaction from an engaged populace.

Alexandria-based McLaughlin & Associates conducted the phone poll July 1 and 2 with 300 respondents from around Culpeper who the company determined would likely be voters in November.

Initial results of the survey of less than 1 percent of the county’s 31,646 active voters showed 54 percent of those polled oppose “the proposed industrial solar complexes” while 34 percent approve of the project, according to a news release Monday from the newly formed local advocacy group, Citizens for Responsible Solar.

Algonquin Trail resident Susan Ralston is president of the new citizens group of area neighbors concerned about the impact of the solar project on the rural community near the Rapidan River.

“We are trying to work all of our various channels to get the word out about the project and our concerns,” she said in phone interview with the Star-Exponent. “We like the quiet, rural community.”

A former White House aide who worked in politics for 20 years, including as assistant to Karl Rove during the George W. Bush presidency, Ralston and her husband bought their Culpeper County farm 10 years ago for its rural beauty. They and others now feel that is being threatened by the Cricket Solar plan.

“One of the distinctions of our group is we are not against solar, renewables or land rights. We are very proud of the land rights’ issue, but ultimately this debate is about the future of Culpeper,” she said. “Do the citizens and the board of supervisors want to send the county in a direction that makes it another Tysons Corner? Do we want the kind of growth that changes the character of this county or do we want it to remain rural and proud of the agriculture, culture and history that we have here? I am just very concerned about these huge projects on ag land.”

The poll results show other Culpeper citizens agree, said Ralston, who owns a political consulting firm.

“We are really heartened that people agree this is not the right course, that large scale industrial solar is not in the interest of Culpeper,” she said. “It really does threaten historic land, could negatively impact property values and is completely out of character.”

Cricket Solar responds

Cricket Solar Director of Project Development Kara Price disagreed when asked to comment on Monday’s poll results, released with the headline, “Vast Majority of Voters Oppose Solar Complex in Culpeper County.”

“There are many supporters of utility scale solar who value renewable energy and the important role it plays in the region’s energy and economic future,” she said in an email to the Star-Exponent. “Our project in Culpeper County addresses the consumer and economic-driven demand that prompted the State of Virginia to declare that 5,000 megawatts of renewable energy is in the public’s best interest.”

Price alluded to the Algonquin Trail landowners with contracts on their property for the solar project, saying they “are making a conscious choice of how best to utilize their land for the near term, as is their right, while maintaining their ability to return their land to agricultural use in the future.”

One such landowner, Dwayne Forrest, a recently retired dairy farmer, said in an interview earlier this year that he saw the contract offer as an opportunity to retain the property he described as marginal farmland. He said he was cautiously optimistic that the project would develop, noting the solar project denied last year by the board of supervisors.

“With having grandchildren and all, I am looking forward to more green energy and clean air—it’s very important,” Forrest said.

Price said the permitting processes and intensive studies required for the project “will ensure the protection of sensitive cultural and historical properties.”

She said her company, based in California, has been responsive to community concerns. Cricket Solar recently submitted a revised site plan to the Culpeper County Planning Department that addresses viewshed impacts and landowners’ concerns.

Revised application makes project larger

Originally planned on 807 acres of various parcels along Algonquin Trail, the revised project now would occupy 930 fenced acres as part of 1,801 acres under contract with Cricket Solar. The nearest home would be located more than 400 feet from the closest solar panel, according to county planning staff, with the average distance between a home and project panels being 1,920-feet.

The new parcels are located on either side of the Dominion power line in the area which the solar panels are intended to feed. As with the project generally, portions of the new parcels are located within the Rapidan River Clark Mountain Rural Historic District and the Civil War Morton’s Ford Battlefield. The fenced-in area of the project would avoid core battlefield, according to county planning staff.

“The increased acreage included in the current property is necessary for the applicant to retain the same generating capacity while accommodating existing environmental requirements and features,” according to county planning staff’s supplemental project narrative. “The size and scope of the project (at 80 megawatts) is necessary to generate power at an economically viable level to support the development costs of the project.”

Winning public support—and approval from the Board of Supervisors—for the large solar project could be challenging for Cricket Solar as members of Citizens for Responsible Solar continue to make their voices heard.

Polling strategy

Results of the recent poll commissioned by the group will be released gradually, said Craig Shirley with Alexandria-based Shirley & Bannister, a public affairs firm assisting with survey publicity. He said the 300 Culpeper voters who participated in the recent phone poll were asked 30 to 40 different questions.

Asked to provide the questions to the Star-Exponent, Shirley declined. “What we intend to do is release new polling data, new bits of every day,” he said. “I can tell you the results are devastating for Cricket Solar.”

The first bit released Monday stated that 61 percent of Republicans polled “oppose this intrusion on their land.” In addition, “When informed of the nature of the project, opposition to the complex increases to 64 percent.” The release stated 54 percent of respondents “indicated they would be less likely to vote for a member of the Culpeper County Board of Supervisors who votes to approve this project.”

More poll results released Wednesday stated 80 percent of Culpeper County voters participating in the survey “overwhelmingly trust a coalition of local community groups to determine what is best for local property, rather than big foreign corporations who don’t have an existing presence in Virginia.” Cricket Solar project developers include BayWa renewable energy, that has a parent company in Germany.

Demographics

Stuart Polk, a vice president with McLaughlin & Associates, provided poll demographics, including sex (53 percent female, 47 male) and race (83 percent white, 9 percent black, 2 percent Hispanic, 1 percent Asian, 3 percent other and 2 percent refused to answer).

The mean age of poll takers was 33.7, according to Polk. The highest percentage of respondents, at 30 percent, was aged 65 or older, with 29 percent in the 41 to 55-year-old range.

Of those polled, 45 percent identified as Republican, 21 percent as Democrat, 25 percent as independent and 9 percent refused to answer. Asked about political ideology, 11 percent identified as liberal, 33 percent moderate, 49 percent conservative and 7 percent refused to answer.

The poll, with a 5.7 margin of error, was done by live phone interview in all seven of Culpeper’s magisterial districts—23 percent of respondents live in the town of Culpeper; 47 percent in north Culpeper County (Salem, Catalpa and Jeffersonton) and 30 percent in south Culpeper County (Cedar Mountain and Stevensburg), according to Polk.

Ralston, with Citizens for Responsible Solar, said she doesn’t see the Cricket Solar project as a Democrat or Republican issue.

“We are trying to engage people at every level why they should care about the direction the county is going,” she said. Regarding the poll, Ralston added, the group wants county officials to know their constituents are aware of the solar proposal.

“We are going to continue to educate likely voters in the upcoming election and we will make this an election issue,” she said.

The first county planning commission public hearing on the Cricket Solar case is scheduled for 7 p.m. on Wednesday, August 14.

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