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Augusta County Planning Commission opposes amending solar plan

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VERONA — The Augusta County Planning Commission recommended the denial of proposed solar amendments to the county’s comprehensive plan that would strongly discourage approving large-scale solar projects with a 5-1 vote at its meeting Tuesday night.

The amendments seek to steer the county away from projects over 200 acres in panels to allow for visual buffering, keep solar projects spaced out to avoid clustering and suggest avoiding placing projects in community development or urban service areas.

The Augusta County Board of Supervisors requested the amendments come before the planning commission after the supervisors determined the wording in a work session.

Pastures Commissioner Thom Jennings motioned to recommend denial of the amendments, with Beverley Manor Commissioner Greg Campbell seconding. South River Commissioner Carolyn Bragg was the only dissenting opinion, while Riverheads Commissioner Kyle Leonard was absent.

The amendments, with the commission’s recommendation of denial, will go before the board of supervisors at another public hearing on July 28.

Several residents of the county came out to speak against the amendments, with many stating they should be able to do with their land what is best for their families.

Jayme Reed, of Mount Sidney, said solar projects allow farmers to receive a much-needed supplementary income to keep farms alive.

“Many local family farms are being sold and divided into subdivisions because the future generations no longer have an interest in farming, or they simply cannot make a living with farming as their only income,” Reed said.

Some residents who supported the amendments discussed the evolving science of solar panels and whether they harm the environment and the farmland.

Donna Miller, who together with her brother works a 700-acre farm in Grottoes, said farming is hard work and financially stressful. She and her brother are getting older and want to retire. With no immediate family member wanting to take over the farm operations, solar presents a viable alternative that allows them to retire and keep the land in the family.

“Would we be destroying the land?” she asked referring to other speakers who said that large solar arrays destroy the land. “What have we been doing for 70 years? We’ve been spreading cow manure, poultry manure, insecticides and other harsh chemicals. We’ve been destroying the land,” she said. “The land needs a rest, and solar would give it that rest.”

Rick Pfizenmayer, the owner of a farm in Stuarts Draft, spoke in approval of the amendments as a landowner who was located near the now-withdrawn Round Hill Solar Project. He argued the county needed to set a precedent against large-scale solar projects that he said invade communities and tarnish views.

“The question is whether we’ve learned from experience with proposed massive, poorly-sighted solar projects that would undermine the vision and policies set forth in the comprehensive plan,” Pfizenmayer said.

When public comment ended, the commissioners quickly began to voice their concerns with the amendments.

Jennings took issue with the wording “strongly discouraged” used in the amendments and with the 200-acre cap, which he called an arbitrary number. He also argued against changing the solar language in the comprehensive plan, as it was only adopted in August 2020.

“My thought is that we have not had this policy nearly long enough to start tinkering with it,” Jennings said. “I don’t like the 200-acre limit. Surely there are places in the county where we might like solar panels with that acreage or larger.”

Bragg disagreed, saying the 200-acre language was just guidance to allow the county to be cautious as they are dealing with a new form of projects.

“This is a new process,” she said. “Everyone across the state is feeling their way through this, trying to find the best fit for their locality and citizens.”

The rest of the board echoed the sentiments of many speakers throughout the meeting that the amendments would deter solar companies from locating projects in the county.

“I think the way this is worded is saying we don’t want solar, that we won’t consider solar,” Middle River Commissioner Kitra Shiflett said. “I don’t think we’re going to get the projects considered if we leave it worded like it is here.”

After the board recommended denial of the amendments, Chairman Larry Howdyshell said the county needs to be careful with putting up unnecessary roadblocks for solar as a rule, and instead gauge projects on a case-by-case basis.

“Each project needs to stand on its own,” he said.

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