Last Thursday evening, your humble narrator went to a neighborhood meeting of sorts. It wasn’t all that neighborly.
The topic was the industrial-size solar energy facility 13 local farming families and a Pennsylvania solar energy conglomerate want to plop down in Stuarts Draft — all 3,200 acres of it. And what to do about it.
Solar energy is fine. My home sports a 5.7 kilowatt array — the biggest a Dominion-Energy-Drafted state law allows me to install. Yes, but that’s another story for another time. What brought me to the meeting was concern about the impact such a large, industrial-grade installation would have on the area not only immediately adjacent, but overall. Because, do not doubt: if this project succeeds, others will follow, and soon.
Augusta County’s new “solar ordinance,” or more properly, amendments to the county ordinances, allows utility-scale solar energy production in the county. Under close questioning in a March 2018 meeting of the County Planning Commission a staff member admitted that much of this new language was drawn from “…a draft solar ordinance put together by those in the solar energy industry…” The same meeting also included a statement from developer Community Energy Solar arguing for a reduction in ordinance requirements for buffering, vegetation barriers, and to “restore the land to its original topography.”
The eventual modifications to county code still forbade “undue adverse impact on the surrounding neighborhood” and required minimization of visual impact to “…scenic landscape, vista or scenic corridor.” But as with all codes, there are ways around requirements if the right people are involved.
The neighborhood meeting was well attended by a group representing those who will profit handsomely from the planned solar installation: at least one will receive an annual lease payment of about $80,000 for 35 years. You do the math to understand why the beneficiaries are so eager to squelch opposition — which they did by a combination of filibuster, argument and, finally, threat: “We’ll just put up turkey barns” was the first resort. They have been working on this project for over two years, so their arguments and tactics are well-developed.
But, in the end, wrong-headed. While there is some sense to their appeal to the sanctity of private property, this is really a case of conflicting property rights: a right in property does not give the owner unlimited ability to do as he or she wishes; there are a myriad of official restrictions on use, which is why the intending lessors are applying for a variance to county ordinances. Additionally, neighbors adjacent to the proposed facility also have property rights, which may be in conflict with particular uses, and financial interests which may be affected by them. “Property rights” is a knife that cuts both ways, even for the “nonadjacent landowners” the country ordinance recognizes as legitimate parties to the discussion. And, unfortunately for those boosting the project, duration of residence doesn’t matter much. If one bases one’s argument of “property rights,” one must respect the rights of all, newcomer and old-timer alike.
Initial planning staff review of the project was not positive; their objections — inappropriate to the character of the community and having potential for negative visual effects — echoed the views of most of the landholding neighbors to the project. There is also the Augusta County Service Authority, which reported to the Planning Commission that the proposed project would result in a net loss in revenue and capital expenditures of between $24 and $32 million — far more than the tax revenue the project’s boosters promise. This amount would have to be made up by rate increases for the Service Authority’s customers — wherever in the country they are located. Call it “spreading the pain around.”
None of which mattered to the landowners in last Thursday’s meeting, who seemed hell-bent on leasing their land and retiring from farming, while retaining their holdings for later use. Impact on neighbors? They didn’t care. Impact on views, property values, “character of the community?” A collective “tough luck.” Only it was pretty clear that “luck” wasn’t the noun they had in mind.
On Tuesday, February 12, the Augusta County Planning Commission meets at 7 p.m. to discuss this project. Documents are on-line in the calendar section of the county website. The Board of Supervisors meets on Wednesday, February 27, at 6 p.m. to discuss it as well. One might show up and ask why the cupidity of a few threatens the purses of the many. It just doesn’t seem neighborly.
Morgan Liddick, who lives in Stuarts Draft, is a columnist for The News Virginian. His column is published weekly.