What to make of 2,600 acres of Stuarts Draft farmland being removed from agricultural production for solar powered energy production? In the end, my thoughts come down to the old saying that we can’t “allow perfection to be the enemy of the good.”
Augusta Solar LLC is piecing together a number of properties in the Stuarts Draft and Lyndhurst area for a solar energy farm. The facility reportedly could provide the energy necessary to power 25,000 households. For reference, Augusta had a U. S. Census estimate of 28,425 households as of July 2017. Essentially Augusta County could be well on its way to energy independence with this 125-megawatt energy complex.
Solar energy is clean, renewable, and in the long run, cheap. After the initial investments there are only minimal maintenance costs. The energy source is free and does not need to be transmitted through pipelines nor carried on rail cars. It does not pollute and cannot be hoarded and controlled by energy monopolists. What’s not to like?
In this case, some disappointment lies when considering that the land being converted is, in every way, the most valuable in Augusta County. “Stuarts Draft has the highest concentration of USDA Prime Farmland in Augusta County. [The land] is deep, well-drained, and nearly level,” according to Bobby Whitescarver, a retired soil conservationist with the USDA.
Not only does Stuarts Draft have the best agricultural land, it has Augusta’s largest and purest reserves of water. The Service Authority’s Lyndhurst well can produce 2 million gallons of unadulterated water on a daily basis. And it must be a pretty good place for sunshine to attract the placement of 1,000 acres of solar collectors.
Augusta has no better place for farm production than Stuarts Draft. But sadly, years ago this community was designated as an urban development area. With that came tens of millions of dollars to develop its water and sewer infrastructure. This was a good faith effort to rein in sprawl. The housing needed for a growing industrial base could be put on fewer acres adjacent to employment centers. But not so good in causing the last crop on some of our best farmland to be pavements and patios.
One of the main reasons for my opposition to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is its ability to use people’s property whether they agree to it or not. “Eminent Domain” is not a popular concept for those who think buying property, and faithfully paying taxes on it, makes it yours, with all the rights and privileges that ownership should convey. This thinking is not just in defense of corporate takings but extends to the loss of value from overly restrictive regulations.
It is here I see this as a good, though not a perfect, use of this land. And as such believe this present opportunity should not be denied, nor overly impeded, by the county Board of Supervisors in hopes of something better down the road.
The selling of this land is without coercion. The proposed use does not discomfort neighbors by noise, smell, or cows in the road. It puts no stress on our schools, our roads, or our emergency services. And any property tax paid is essentially without burden to the county.
I suspect by the time the contract is over, potentially 40 years, the equipment will be inefficient to what will have been developed by then. Homes will routinely be built with their own energy-producing roof panels. Energy production will likely be different, taking a new and better form by then.
But what will not change is the need to eat. The desire for sweet corn and a good steak will remain. In 2058, my betting is that this land will be returned to its highest and best use as nearly perfect farmland. “Perfection” awaits if we are but patient.
Tracy Pyles is a columnist for The News Virginian and a former chairman and member of the Augusta County Board of Supervisors. He lives in Augusta County.