VERONA — Following over three hours of discussion Tuesday night, the Augusta County Planning Commission voted against recommending to the Augusta County Board of Supervisors that the Round Hill Solar Project, an 880-acre, 83 megawatt energy system, is in “substantial accord” with the county’s Comprehensive Plan. The vote to deny the motion that the project was in compliance with the comp plan was 4-3.
Although the Planning Commission’s consideration regarding the project’s compliance with the Comprehensive Plan was one step in the application process, the actual approval or denial of the large scale energy system, will come during a public hearing before the Augusta County Board of Supervisors. The decision on whether or not to issue a special use permit for the project rests with the supervisors. The date of that public hearing has not yet been set.
The comprehensive plan is the state mandated planning document that lays out the vision for how the county wants to look and develop in the next 20 years. Because solar development is a relatively new industry, the county comp plan lacked any language at all regarding renewal energy development. In order to address that problem the county appointed a citizen solar committee that made recommendations to the county regarding the addition of solar language to the comprehensive plan. The final language, consisting of several pages and dozens of goals, objectives and policies, was adopted by the county in late August of 2020. The Augusta County Comprehensive Plan can be viewed on the county’s website.
At Tuesday’s public hearing, Augusta County residents, many of whom lived on parcels of land in close proximity to the project, packed into the government center to voice their views on the proposed project by Round Hill Solar LLC. The project, consisting of 11 parcels owned by the Bocock and Bradley families, would have 560 acres in photovoltaic panels, situated in smaller buffered pods, and over 300 acres in vegetative buffers as setbacks, screening, and in the riparian areas. Under the agreement, the land would house solar panels for 35 years and at the end of the lease the developer would have to return to the land to agricultural production.
Most of those commenting in person, by email, and by virtual hookup expressed concerns about the obstruction of their views. Some were worried about views dominated by large swaths of solar arrays, while others commented that they were concerned that the trees proposed to be planted to buffer the view would grow too tall and block their views of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
A smaller number of people spoke in favor of the project, noting that it provided more wildlife habitat than was currently on the property, while allowing the land to remain undeveloped thus avoiding issues involved with development included increased traffic and higher taxes.
In the end, newly appointed Chairman Larry Howdyshell, and commissioners Greg Campbell, Kyle Leonard and Carolyn Bragg all voted against the motion that the project was in compliance with the comprehensive plan, citing a failure to be in “substantial accord” with the plan’s goals, objectives, and policies. Vice Chairman Robert Thomas, who made the motion that the project was in substantial accord with the plan, Kitra Shiflett and Thomas Jennings all voted in favor of the motion. The negative recommendation will be sent to the board of supervisors.
“In short, I do not believe the project is in compliance with our comprehensive plan,” Bragg said. “The location is one of our most popular in our area and is not in character with the surrounding community. The extent of the project will overshadow all that it is around. The overall impact to adjacent property owners and the public, in general, will be devastating.”
Strata Solar’s Round Hill Solar Project is proposed to be located north and south of Guthrie Road, east of White Hill Road and northwest of Tinkling Spring Road on farm property. The project application included several types of buffers. Type A buffers are 30-foot-wide continuous mixed evergreen screens. Type B are 35-foot-wide buffer of mixed evergreen and ornamental tree screens. Type C are 50-foot-wide buffers of mixed evergreen and ornamental tree screens with shrub plant material.
The different types of buffers are for uses depending on the land bordering the buffers, with more mitigation planned for busier areas. Despite arguments from Strata throughout the night to the contrary, residents argued that their views of the panels in the area would hurt their property values.
However, the viability of vegetative buffers was brought into question several times throughout the night because of the rolling topography of the land. County planner Leslie Tate noted during the meeting that areas with similar topography had issues establishing effective buffers. Rick Pfizenmayer, who owns a farm on Round Hill Drive, argued that blocking the acres of solar panels from the view of neighbors and motorists was impossible.
“The planning staff notes the area’s rolling topography makes vegetative buffering difficult and concludes that the landscape buffering and established setbacks may mitigate ongoing impact to some locations, but not all. Not a very comforting conclusion,” Pfizenmayer said.
“I told my realtor that first and foremost, I wanted a view. I wouldn’t have purchased my property if it didn’t have a view, so I feel it does impact our property value,” resident Kristin Jackson said. “I wouldn’t buy a property with that in my backyard. The trees plan to start at about six feet and then over 10 years will come to maturity. That’s a 10-year period where you’re seeing the panels, and then you’ll be boxed in by trees on all sides.”
The project represents more than a $100 million investment into the county, and if approved, would begin construction by late 2022. Included in the revenue is the fact that the land would come out of the lower agricultural land use tax designation and would be taxed at the full county real estate rate. The proposed is projected to bring over $6 million in revenue to the county over its 35-year lifespan.
“That site currently pays the county $4,500 annually in real estate taxes, as opposed to $116,000 annually after this project is built,” Dave Stoner, the development consultant for the project, said. “Additionally, if the county does choose to reassess the land, we estimate that could produce up to $35,000 each year.”
Another proposed benefit of the project is the creation of approximately 400 construction jobs for the next couple of years, and then eight to 10 permanent maintenance positions dedicated to upkeep the site.
Nancy Sorrells, representative for the Alliance of the Shenandoah Valley and News Virginian correspondent, spoke in favor of the project. She argued the project was beneficial to the local environment, the county and the landowner financially, as well as contributing to the preservation of farm land.
“The reality is that large scale solar arrays also represent tax revenue that is at least 10 times higher to the county coffers than if this land remained in agriculture,” Sorrells said. To start with, the land goes out of land use, which represents a huge revenue increase for the county. This project will produce over $6 million in direct revenues to the county over its life … This benefits Augusta County Citizens directly by diversifying the county’s tax base, providing substantial new tax revenues and thus helping to keep tax rates lower in the county in the future.”
Sorrells expanded that solar was a natural use for the land and said the site could be used for traditional farming once again in 35 years because of the solar project’s preservation efforts. She challenged the planning commission to think outside the box as they considered their votes.
“Farming in 1708 looks not one iota like farming does today,” Sorrells said. “And yet farmers have managed not only to survive but also to thrive because they were good business people as well as people who loved and learned how to manage the land. They were agile and flexible and were willing to learn and experiment and adapt new methods.”
The majority of the land the project falls on is designated as an agriculture conservation planning policy area in the comprehensive plan, with a smaller portion being a community development planning policy area. Stoner stated that the project is not feasible without access to those community development areas as members of the board brought up questions about whether or not those parcels were necessary to the viability of the project. Those parcels are needed to ensure the project meets its 83-megawatt goal.
Because of the areas the land falls on and the total size, South River Commissioner Bragg explained that she felt that the project failed to meet the county’s comprehensive plan and could hardly be called a carefully sited project as the plan requires.
“We don’t need to approve the first project brought to us, or the second or third, but it needs to be the right project with the right location before approval is given,” Bragg said. “Locating 880 acres of industrial fields off of our major highways in one of our largest communities is not a carefully sited project. Waterlines are in the ground, and citizen’s lives will be drastically affected.”
Beverley Manor Commissioner Campbell agreed with those issues, saying that it would be almost impossible to build a project like this in the area without impacting viewsheds. Campbell sided with the opinions of those present before voting against the motion that the project was in substantial accord with the comprehensive plan.
“It’s very clear to me that people in this community are not in favor of this,” Campbell said. “The comprehensive plan is driven by input from those in our community. The community belongs to the citizens who live there. As I listen to everyone who spoke tonight and review those updated policies, the voices tonight became very clear to me. There are significant challenges that I do not think can get me comfortable saying we’ve satisfied this to the extent that we can certify.”
Middle River District Commissioner Shiflett said she wished the land could remain in agriculture but supported the project because of the landowner’s wishes and the benefits it brings to the county in comparison to alternatives like additional housing.
“I would love if the land could remain in agriculture, but the farmers who own it say they don’t want it in agriculture,” Shiflett said. “They want it in something else, which may be something like houses. I think the solar project tops housing by a good bit. I don’t see the advantage of having more traffic, more schools and more taxes.”