By Randy Arrington
LURAY, March 8 — The Page County Planning Commission received a rambunctious round of applause Tuesday night after unanimously voting to recommend denial of a special use permit for the Cape Solar project.
District 1 representative Catherine Grech made the motion for denial, citing “adverse impacts” of the proposed 100-megawatt solar electricity generating facility proposed on a 559-acre site along Route 340 just north of Luray.
The site of the proposed Cape Solar project is zoned for agricultural use. The industrial-scale solar facility would sit on the east side of Route 340 near the intersection with Hinton Road, with proposed entrances off both Hinton Road and Route 340 North. The Page County Zoning Ordinance requires electric facilities operating above 40 kilovolts to have a special use permit.
The commission’s decision to recommend denial on Tuesday night followed 33 speakers, who all voiced opposition to the Cape Solar project during a public hearing.
“I’m humbled to be here tonight,” Grech told the crowd in attendance at the Page County Government Center. “You’ve humbled me with your comments…you’ve done your homework.”
Many of the arguments voiced Tuesday night against the solar farm project were the same as they’ve been since the first application was submitted for Cape Solar in 2018. While a smaller solar farm further south near Dam Acres called Dogwood Solar was approved, the larger Cape Solar project was rejected by the Page County Board of Supervisors. One of the main reasons for denial, both then and now, is due to the size of the proposed industrial-scale solar facility.
During the public hearing, speakers also addressed environmental concerns if solar panels are damaged, loss of farmland, erosion and sediment control, disruption of wildlife, potential for sinkholes in karst topography, potential contamination of drinking water…and the most common argument — it’s potential damage to the landscape and natural beauty in an area that thrives off tourism driven by the natural landscape.
A representative of Urban Grid — a Richmond-based solar developer who submitted the application to the county for a special use permit to operate Cape Solar — told the commission that the concerns of the public could be mitigated. Views from Route 340 could be blocked with proper plantings of trees and vegetation, he stated, and any soil and erosion concerns would be regulated through applicable permits specific to that issue.
The Urban Grid rep was the first speaker during the public hearing, citing millions of dollars that would flow into the county through various taxes, fees or revenue sharing depending on which model the county agreed to moving forward. He estimated the county’s revenue over the projected 35-year life of the project at between $5 million to $7 million.
The solar development spokesman touted a long list of benefits to the Cape Solar project, such as less demand on public services and utilities than a residential subdivision, an increase in real estate tax on the land, job creation during construction and future maintenance, no daily traffic, and the option of reclaiming the land for farmland if the project ever concluded or was ceased.
Urban Grid’s arguments didn’t resonate with Grech, who has long opposed the project and had her motion prepared to submit it as soon as the lengthy public hearing ended. Following no discussion by the planning commission — who held a March 1 work session to work through final details and potential changes to the special use permit — all four members voted to recommend denial of Urban Grid’s permit application to the Page County Board of Supervisors.
With the planning commission serving as an advisory agency, the board of supervisors will have the final say over the Cape Solar application, which they denied once almost four years ago. While there have been some changes the second time around, the footprint of the project (559 acres) and the location (Roger Houser’s property) remains the same as it was in 2018.
Following the approval of the Dogwood Solar project and the initial denial of the Cape Solar project, the county previously had a moratorium in place on any new solar farm applications until a solar ordinance was adopted for Page County. The planning commission spent two years developing such an ordinance, including thousands of dollars spent on consultant The Berkley Group, only to have the proposed solar ordinance that limited future solar projects to a footprint of 200 acres voted down, 4-2, by the supervisors.
Urban Grid resubmitted the Cape Solar application on Dec. 11, 2020 and the county accepted it (by processing the filing fee) even though the moratorium on new solar farm applications was still in place. Since the application had been processed, the county was forced to deal with it through the normal process. So, the original moratorium was repealed and a new moratorium on future solar applications was put in place in November, which allowed the Cape Solar permit to move forward through the planning commission.
The issue is now in the hands of the board of supervisors, who have up to one year to act on the planning commission’s recommendation.