Thank you, County Supervisor Gerald Garber. Thank you, Supervisors Carolyn Bragg, Wendell Coleman and Michael Shull. Thank you all for re-emphasizing, to those who may not have gotten the message, that the Augusta County Comprehensive Development Plan means what it says about protecting the nature and character of our little slice of the Shenandoah Valley.

Most county residents know this story: the large, out-of-state company seeking to scatter a thousand acres of solar panels across the Stuarts Draft area; the 13 local landholding families who saw this as an opportunity to eat their cake and have it; the cozy meetings between the Richmond law firm representing Community Solar and the Board of Supervisors; the misrepresentations to the Planning Commission and the public reaction. Now, this phase is over.

It couldn’t have been easy, particularly when the Planning Commission punted an easy one. Community Solar’s plan was an obvious contravention of the county’s development plan. It was also the subject of a negative report by the commission’s staff and by the Augusta County Service Authority. It should have been spiked at the Commission meeting on Feb. 7 but wasn’t, because Community Solar’s lawyer misquoted a point of Virginia law to the Commissioners, and they swallowed it without bothering to check — swallowed it hook, line and sinker.

It couldn’t have been easy either due to the hoopla generated by Community Solar in a vain attempt to gin up support for their solar factory.

Jobs, tax revenue, environmental responsibility, and everything short of a Klingon cloaking device to hide the industrial facilities. “Nuthin’ to see here, folks…” Gushing pro-solar commentary by members of the political class. Letters from those with something to gain, and from people who will support anything with the word “solar” in it.

But the overall impact could be seen, and again: thanks to all who saw it.

Of course the decision generated a good deal of aggravation. Max Quillen of Waynesboro Nurseries, apparently the unofficial spokesperson for the group of 13 potential lessors, fumed about being “eminently domained” and about property rights, but his protests were ill-founded.

Not only was the “it’s my property, so I can do as I wish with it” argument obviated the moment a variance was applied for, the real question was the project’s compliance with the county’s planning document, which governs all development in the county.

There was also the question of balancing the property rights of the 13 lessors against the property rights of their neighbors — which rights include “quiet enjoyment” and the preservation of views to which the county’s development plan alludes. These neighbors’ rights — which entail immediately upon ownership of a parcel of land, negating the “my family has owned this land for 200 years” appeal — are as valid as those of the intending lessors.

Mr. Quillen knows all this, being an educated man; his protests are therefore somewhat disingenuous and his “the neighbors be dam’d” attitude more than a little unhelpful.

Better that Community Energy and its local lessors design something that actually fits the county’s development plan. Better too, that Strata Solar, the second company seeking to plop down a thousand acres of solar panels in the Stuarts Draft area pay attention to the Board’s decision and the concerns of the community.

It may well be that utility-scale solar facilities are appropriate to Augusta county: there is open land, and transmission infrastructure is near. But planning for such development should be an open process that takes all parties’ concerns into account and seeks buy-in and community support.

Private meetings with developers are doubtless necessary, but an abundance of them, coupled with regulations largely drawn with their assistance and announcement of plans which appear to be all but approved without public input will not be well-met, as they were not in the last instance.

Supervisor Bragg in particular seems to know this, and practices accordingly. Time will tell if others follow her good example. 

Our country was designed by our founders to prevent majoritarian tyranny: the whims of the many do not outweigh the rights of the few.

However, it is also a founding principle that the wishes of the powerful, the monied and the well-connected should not be established by fiat in the teeth of opposition by the majority, simply because the latter are not powerful, monied or well-connected.

Again, Augusta County Commissioners Garber, Bragg, Coleman and Shull deserve our thanks for remembering these truths, and for acting on them.

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Morgan Liddick, who lives in Stuarts Draft, is a columnist for The News Virginian. His column is published the first and third Wednesday of each month.

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