LURAY, Sept. 11 ― Taking to a podium three minutes at a time, more than 60 community members spent four hours last Tuesday weighing in on two proposed solar farms in Page County.
Collectively, 68 people signed up to address the Page County Planning Commission during three public hearings that considered permit applications for the renewable energy projects, as well as if those projects are in accord with the county's seven-year-old comprehensive plan.
The hearings followed ongoing discussions that began on May 9, when the Virginia-based companies Dogwood Solar, LLC and Cape Solar, LLC ― affiliates of Urban Grid Solar Projects ― filed two special use permit requests in Page County.
According to the applications ― the first of their kind filed in the county ― the projects at peak output are projected to power 25,000 households in the Mid-Atlantic region. Cape Solar's project proposes utilizing 559 acres on the east side of Route 340 North, near the intersection of Hinton Road just north of Luray, for a 100-megawatt solar electricity-generating facility. Dogwood Solar is proposing a 20-megawatt solar farm on about 340 acres on Dam Acres Road in Stanley.
Residents have widely spoken out against the projects since the planning commission in May picked up regular discussions at its bi-monthly meetings, often packing the board room in a show of solidarity.
A crowd of more than 200 turned out Tuesday, with 45 of the night's 68 speakers voicing opposition to the projects and/or their alignment with the county's comprehensive plan.
“They are not in substantial accord, primarily because the comprehensive plan uses the word 'preservation' a myriad of times throughout that document,” J.D. Cave told commissioners. “The comprehensive plan speaks to retaining the rural character of Page County.”
The former county supervisor noted his “unique perspective,” having voted to adopt the plan seven years ago while serving as the board's District 3 representative.
“As I recall, our intent, the intent of the document, was to do just what I said ― preserve the rural lifestyle of Page County,” said Cave.” I can't see this preservation aspect marrying up with a solar panel project.”
Harrisonburg attorney and Urban Grid representative Jared Burner said the projects' “day-to-day impacts … are so small as to be almost nonexistent.” The temporary panels, he continued, “preserve the land from years of chemical usage such as fertilizer and pesticides … and other contaminants that would impact the land and the groundwater if there were not a solar farm.”
Many on Tuesday questioned the temporariness of a 99-year permit period, as well as the longterm impacts caused by the installation of several hundred solar panels.
“Almost 300,000 of those, that's a lot of water running off those things, so, where does the storm water go?” said Vice President of the Luray Caverns Corp. Rod Graves.
Graves continued, saying the proposed projects ― “something that looks like a concentration camp” ― do not align with the comprehensive plan's aim at preserving “natural scenery, forests and cliffs.”
“This is not agriculture, people,” Graves said.
Burner said because the tilted panels move throughout the day, rainwater hitting the panels falls to a stand beneath them.
“The equipment after years of producing clean energy will be removed. The land will still be there. Nothing is lost,” said Burner. In fact, he said, the solar farms “hold the line against the kind of haphazard residential, industrial and commercial development that the comprehensive plan was put in place to stop.
“Our solar farms are in accord with the Page County Comp Plan because they are temporary, because they maintain agricultural land without damage or loss, because they positively impact the county and because they are a responsible step into a future that is coming.”
Many asked commissioners to consider what impact the projects might have on tourism, the county's largest industry behind agriculture, and the eyesore they said the equipment will create along nearly 1,000 acres of the Valley.
Wendy Brown, who owns and operates the nationally acclaimed Halloween attraction Darkwood Manor in Luray, said she suspects tourists ― many who travel from large, urban areas ― would view solar farms in a small, rural county as a positive and progressive step into the future.
Several speakers told commissioners the Valley's scenic views and thriving agriculture are jeopardized by the projects.
“We certainly need to protect our land and our heritage,” said Catherine Grech.
Three speakers said they would not have purchased land in Page County had they known solar farms would be constructed.
At the commission's June 26 meeting, Superintendent for Shenandoah National Park Jennifer Flynn said based on preliminary viewshed analysis conducted by the park, areas along Route 340 in Luray, including Dogwood Solar's proposed site, are considered “highly visible” from Skyline Drive.
Burner said a rendering of the view submitted by the park is inaccurate because it depicts a “compressed perspective from angles that don't look like anything that you actually see when you're on Skyline Drive.”
Based on a rendering submitted by the applicant, the panels from Skyline Drive will “look like smooth water, if you see it at all.”
“It's a lot less visible than the poultry houses that have already been strewn all through the viewshed, and the white rows of poultry houses that are going to come in the future,” said Burner.
Rockingham County resident Dennis Higgs said those structures represent the Valley's rich agrarian roots.
“We don't mind chicken houses, we don't mind hog farms ― we move here for that,” Higgs said.
Others asked commissioners to consider adjoining property owners. According to the permit applications, the proposed sites include 71 adjoining property owners of the Route 340 project and 40 of the Dam Acres project.
“There is no legal right to have a particular view of another person's property,” Burner said, adding that ground-mounted panels will be set back from the road, and a view of a surrounding fence will be shielded by two staggered rows of trees ― conditions outlined in the special use permit request.
Addressing claims that the solar farms will decrease property values, Burner said there “are no facts that support [that] position.”
“However, we cannot speak for what would happen to property values if, say, a cemetery or a town waste water facility or … an industrial-scale hog farm or poultry farm result next door,” said Burner. “I say this because each of these uses are permitted by right in the Page County Zoning Code. An owner of A1 land in this county can put one of these uses on his or her property right now without coming in front of you or the board [of supervisors] for a zoning permit.”
Members of the Keyser Family, who own Dam Acres Inc., told commissioners many of the concerns raised by opponents were unfounded and that the purpose of developing a solar farm on the land is for the “sole purpose to leave the land in tact for generations to come.”
“There will be no forest cut, the acreage is not prime crop land, panels will not be seen from the river, nor are they adjacent property of the river,” said Penny Keyser, noting the remaining two-thirds of the farm will be used for agriculture. “Solar panels on my property will not block my view of the Blue Ridge or Massanutten mountains, and unfortunately they won't even block the view of my neighbors' poultry houses nor the dilapidated, old barn within my sight.”
Keyser continued, noting that Dam Acres' was named for a hydroelectric dam that was installed on the property in the 1920s.
“So, the farm had a very early start in the renewable energy business,” said Keyser, adding that that project too faced opposition from community members nearly a century ago. “Hindsight being 20/20, we can now take a look back and realize that hydroelectric dams brought growth and revenue to the county in the same manner that solar projects will do.”
Over the next 35 years the Stanley project is projected to generate more than $500,000 in tax revenue, according to the applicants, while the Route 340 project is projected to generate $4.4 million. Burner estimated the non-tax impact of the Stanley project in the year of its construction and development at $1.7 million. The figure for Luray is $8.7 million.
The Page County Planning Commission is scheduled to vote on the projects at its Sept. 25 meeting. The 10-member commission will then give its recommendations to county supervisors, who must hold their own public hearings before the projects can be approved.