VERONA — Landowners in the Stuarts Draft and Lyndhurst areas are continuing their fight to see a solar farm built on their property.
The property owners have resubmitted the proposal to the Augusta County Board of Supervisors for reconsideration that the board, on a 4-3 vote, denied on May 22.
On Wednesday night, attorney Thomas Kleine, counsel for the landowners and Community Energy Solar, parent company of Augusta Solar LLC, formally asked the board to reconsider its decision.
Kleine, saying "significant new information" that affects the project had come to light, told the board a new vote on the proposal was justified.
"We think in fairness to these property owners ... the board ought to take a pause," he said.
Last month, supervisors denied Community Energy Solar's request for a special-use permit needed to build a 125-megawatt solar farm on numerous parcels on land zoned for agricultural use around Stuarts Draft and Lyndhurst.
During Wednesday's meeting, Kleine cited a sewer study prepared for the county and released a day before the board's vote, which he said refutes the contention by opponents of the proposal that the property in question has a potential for industrial or other large-scale commercial development.
The board took no action following Kleine's request.
After the open meeting, Supervisor Gerald Garber, the board's chairman, said if changes are made to the county's ordinance, a permit can be resubmitted. However, if no changes are made to the county's ordinance, once a permit has been denied by the county, the applicant cannot submit the same proposal for a year.
On Tuesday, Max Quillen, one of the property owners on whose land solar panels would have been installed, also approached the Augusta County Planning Commission with a request that his family’s land be deleted from the county comprehensive plan’s urban service and community development areas.
County planning staff and the majority of supervisors voting against the proposal cited the comp plan’s designation of the property in question for future development as their major objection to the solar farm.
Quillen, who helps his family operate Waynesboro Nurseries in Lyndhurst, said the property owners are asking supervisors to take another look at the proposal in part because “we just think they were wrong. The Planning Commission got it right.”
On Feb. 12, the commission, on a 5-2 vote, agreed that Community Energy’s proposal complied, in all or in part, with the comprehensive plan. The panel, which is an appointed advisory body, was not asked to make a recommendation on the solar farm proposal.
“There are many, many things in the comprehensive plan that support our plan,” Quillen said.
The revised plan as presented to supervisors on May 22 reduced the solar farm’s footprint to 845 acres, according to Tom Anderson, development director for Community Energy Solar. Before the latest revisions, the project called for solar panels to be installed on about 1,000 acres on multiple parcels. The landowners were to lease their property to the solar company for 35 years.
Company officials first approached the county in January 2018 about their plans for a solar farm. A formal presentation, however, wasn't made until August.
The solar farm would have been Augusta County’s first. In June 2018, the county adopted a change in its zoning ordinance that allows for solar panels on land zoned general agriculture.
On the night of the vote, Supervisor Carolyn Bragg, whose South River District includes the site of the proposed project, explained her opposition, saying the project doesn’t fit into what county policymakers and planners have been working toward for decades.
Bragg said the county has established a goal through the comp plan of locating 90% of all future growth within these areas — residential, business and industrial — due to the Stuarts Draft community’s proximity to Interstates 64 and 81. Additionally, opponents of the project say the county has invested in the area’s infrastructure, including upgrades to the wastewater treatment plant and added water and sewer to service for existing and potential development.
Before voting, Bragg said the county’s code “states that no special-use permit shall be approved unless it conforms to the comprehensive plan.”
But Quillen, speaking Monday, argues that the facts on the ground don’t support Bragg and other opponents’ contention that the site in question is primed for major development.
Pointing to a county sewer study released a day before the vote, he and other supporters of the project say the county’s consultant says development potential "is limited" in the areas we and the property owners planned for solar.
The cost, they say, to construct sewer service even to areas with “moderate to high” development potential along U.S. 340 in the Ladd Road area, where no solar is proposed, would be too expensive, take an unrealistic amount of growth to support and a long time to pay back.
The final report, East Stuarts Draft Sewer Feasibility Study, completed by Christiansburg-based engineering firm Peed & Bortz, says in summary that growth in the study area “is slow to nonexistent, and importantly not in the areas the solar project is to be located.” In addition, the summary states that “the areas with the potential for growth will be expensive to deliver sewer services to” and that number “of residential accounts required for breakeven” are “remarkable” and “unattainable over the next 20 years under any realistic growth projections.”
“We can’t see how this justifies their argument ... that this area is high potential for industry and residential,” Quillen said, adding that the board had delayed making a decision on the special-use permit to wait for the study but had only a day to review it before voting.
“We are simply asking them to reconsider,” he said. “It seems like they’re ignoring these inconvenient facts.”
Quillen, during Tuesday’s Planning Commission meeting, reiterated a statement on the part of the landowners following the May 22 supervisors’ vote that they are not interested in selling their property to a third-party developer.
“Please consider this our formal request to remove our parcels from the urban service and community development areas,” according to a written statement of his comments to the commission.
Further, he told the commission that the comp plan states that its “policies are not requirements for future development in the policy planning areas. It is the current Zoning Ordinance that determines the type and nature of development within the policy planning areas and any other zoned portion of the county”
Quillen said that the comp plan’s language puts landowner’s rights forward. The supervisors’ vote, he said, “sounds a lot like eminent domain.”
Based on the board’s vote, he said, the comp plan — which is updated every five years — must be strengthened to protect landowners’ rights against overreach from the county.
Meanwhile, a North Carolina company — Solar Strata — is considering Augusta County for the site of a separate solar-power project in the Fishersville and Stuarts Draft areas.
Previously, Leslie Tate, a planner in the Community Development Department, said the company requested confidentially during its preliminary talks with the county and had not yet made any kind of an official application as of late last month.
Virginia code permits local governments to withhold information if disclosing proprietary information or negotiations would adversely affect the locality.
On May 31, Tate provided preliminary maps of the property Solar Strata is considering showing parcels south of Interstate 64, west of Tinkling Spring Road and north of White Hill Road.
Attempts to reach Strata Solar, based in Durham, North Carolina, for comment have been unsuccessful.
In addition to developing power-generating solar projects in North Carolina, Strata has been involved in several facilities in Virginia as well as throughout the Southeast and across the U.S.
According to the company’s website, Strata has helped developed or is developing facilities in Buckingham, New Kent, Powhatan, Southampton and Sussex counties in the commonwealth.