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April 17, 2015

Despite local opposition, solar farm recommended

Photo/Dominion Virginia Power
Solar panels would cover 125 acres along Lucky Hill Road, according to Dominion’s application.
Ladies and gentlemen, there are facts in front of us tonight. The first fact is that Virginia Power owns this land.
— Planning Commissioner John Meadows (Lee District)
Public Hearing
• Topic: Dominion Virginia Power’s applications for rezoning, comprehensive plan amendment and special exception permit to build solar energy facility near Remington.

• Site: 205 acres at 11870 Lucky Hill Road.

• When: Thursday, April 16.

• Agency: Fauquier County Planning Commission.

• Where: Warren Green Building, Warrenton.

• Speakers: 2 in support, 22 opposed.

• Length: 58 minutes.

• Issues: Environmental impacts, removal of open space for adjacent gas-powered generator built in 1998, loss of lease for Shady Grove hunting preserve and shooting clays course and economic impact.

• Vote: 5-0 to recommend approval.

• Next: Applications go to board of supervisors for public hearing and decision.
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Dominion Virginia Power and its plan for a southern Fauquier solar farm took a verbal beating Thursday night.

Twently-two people — many of whom live nearby — spoke against rezoning 206 acres along Lucky Hill Road, east of Remington, for the $47-million project.

Just two speakers, Dominion executives, supported the applications during a hour of testimony before the Fauquier County Planning Commission.

The five-member commission, however, voted unanimously to recommend board of supervisors’ approval.

“Ladies and gentlemen, there are facts in front of us tonight,” said Commissioner John Meadows (Lee District), who represents the area. “The first fact is that Virginia Power owns this land.”

Opponents criticized the company’s termination of its lease with Shady Grove Kennel, Hunting Preserve and Sporting Clays after almost 24 years.

A longtime friend and client of Shady Grove owner Neil Selby, Mr. Meadows called his motion to recommend approval of the applications “one of the most emotional” in more than 15 years on the commission. He and his wife got married there. They have bought retriever puppies from Mr. Selby.

“This place is important, not just to Fauquier County, to Virginia,” Mr. Meadows said. “It is also important to me. This is something that cannot be replaced if it is taken away.”

But, he added, comments about that 400-acre lease, which will end Sept. 27, “are not part of what we can consider tonight.”

His fellow commissioners agreed. They could consider only whether the land-use applications addressed county ordinances.

“This is an issue of a landowner coming to us (for a rezoning) inside the service district,” an area designed for development, Commissioner Adrienne Garreau (Scott District) said.

Dominion Vice President of Business Development Jim Eck said his company would continue to work with Mr. Selby on a potential new lease for 200 acres unaffected by the proposed solar farm.

The project would “introduce large-scale solar power to Virginia,” Mr. Eck told the commission. “And, Fauquier County has an opportunity to be a leader . . . . We see many possibilities for the commonwealth and Dominion Virginia Power customers.”

The project would create an estimated 350 construction jobs and about $80,000 in taxes annually for Fauquier, he added.

Once built, it would have no permanent staff, would require little maintenance and would generate no noise.

The 125-acre field of glass panels, seven feet above the ground, would generate enough electricity for 5,000 homes during periods of “peak” demand, Mr. Eck said. His company 17 years ago constructed the adjacent turbine generators, fueled with natural gas, also to provide electricity on the hottest and coldest days, when demand peaks.

Several opponents referenced that project Thursday night. The 400 acres Mr. Selby leases got set aside as an open space buffer when the board of supervisors approved the gas-fired plant.

Citizens for Fauquier County recommends denial, although we are very much in favor of solar power,” testified Jessie Swan, a member of the environmental organization’s board. “We believe this is ill-considered . . . .

“Back in 1998, Virginia Dominion Power agreed to set aside this land for the power plant . . . . Now, they’re coming back, years later, and saying, ‘We were just kidding’.”

The solar farm would develop the land in a manner the utility promised it wouldn’t, Ms. Swan added.

“What about all those (neighbors) who made life plans based on that being open space? It’s disturbing to us that Dominion already has canceled the lease on this site, assuming it will go through,” she said. “We need to hold these developers and businesses to their promises.”

Robert Wargo, who lives on 1-1/2 acres adjacent to the site, said: “My agricultural view will be turned into an industrial view, a solar view.”

Opponents said the development of the solar farm essentially would create a 125-acre desert, devoid of vegetation and wildlife. Water runoff and toxic materials used to the panels raise concerns, they said.

Members of bird dog organizations came from as far away as Lynchburg and Maryland to speak against the solar farm, because of its effect on Shady Grove.

Eric Whitacre, vice president of the Rappahannock River Retriever Club, said his organization brought 90 dog owners and trainers to Shady Grove last weekend. Those people spent an estimated $30,000 on meals, lodging and other local purchases, Mr. Whitacre estimated. His group also donated $2,000 to local 4-H clubs that helped with the event.

“Dominion presented its economic impact statement,” Mr. Whitacre said. “We thought you should hear ours.”

Ten such events a year bring $300,000 into the local economy, he estimated.

“Is it right to allow one business to expand at the expense of the surrounding community?” asked Virginia Dorkey, who lives nearby. “Approval of this is going to cut down on the tourism and negatively impact our tax base.”

Mrs. Dorkey also referenced the gas-fired powered plant’s approval that required the open space buffer “to offset the noise. Anyone who lives around there knows how noisy that peak plant is.

“My neighbors look down on the power plant. They’re gonna look down on the mirrors, and that water is gonna go somewhere,” she said of additional storm runoff in a flood-prone area.

“One hopes the criteria for decision-making is the health and welfare of citizens,” Mrs. Dorkey added. “I say no, and I am a Dominion stockholder.”

After the hearing, Mr. Eck addressed some of the criticism in a discussion before the commission’s vote.

Dominion will meet all Virginia Department Environmental Quality requirements, including stormwater management and proper disposal of the industrial-grade solar panels, which have 30-year guarantees, he said.

Despite criticism to the contrary, the solar project makes sense for Dominion customers because investment tax credits and free “fuel” hold down costs, he said. The State Corporation Commission carefully considers the economics before granting approval for utility projects.

The project also would help the company diversify its generation methods, according to Mr. Eck. The 20-megawatt plant would represent just 5 percent of the solar generation capacity Dominion plans to develop in Virginia.

Although the county can’t require it, commission members asked Dominion representatives to help Mr. Selby find a new location for his business.

And, Mr. Meadows blasted company representatives for the manner in which they dealt with their tenant.

He, Supervisor Chester Stribling (Lee District) and County Administrator Paul McCulla learned of the solar proposal in a Dec. 7 meeting with Dominion representatives, Mr. Meadows said.

At that meeting, county officials indicated preliminary support but suggested Dominion representatives immediately discuss details with Mr. Selby, according to Mr. Meadows.

Within several days, Mr. Selby heard of the possible solar farm while grocery shopping, and more than two months passed before company officials contacted their long-time tenant, Mr. Meadows said.

“This has been one of the poorest public relations I have seen from a good corporate neighbor,” he said just before the 5-0 vote. “I am disappointed . . . . However, back to my original statement: They do own the land. They have terminated that lease.

“Everybody has their lawyers . . . . I listen to mine. Mine (the county attorney) says I do not have any grounds for a postponement. The applicant has brought forward a complete application and we must vote on it.”
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PattiL · April 22, 2015 at 1:21 pm
Really well written article, information is all-inclusive. Love FauquierNow to keep current on local happenings.
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