PUBLISHER’s NOTE: The following is penned as commentary and listed in our EDITORIAL section.
By Randy Arrington, publisher
LURAY, May 20 — It has rarely felt so good to so many to see the Page County Board of Supervisors do nothing.
On Tuesday night, the six-member board did not vote, or even put forth a motion, regarding the long-debated and often-amended solar ordinance after nearly three years of discussion.
And that was just fine with most in attendance.
“Thank you for listening [to the people],” Catherine Grech told board members. “You’ve made us all feel a little lighter tonight.”
Tuesday’s meeting started with 28 public comments — both in-person and written statements submitted in advance. Each one passionately urged the supervisors to not allow large-scale, industrial solar facilities in Page County.
Many saw a compromise, however, in the planning commission’s recommended ordinance limiting utility-scale solar farms to 200 acres — but that was voted down, 4-2, in February. The fear now, was that the board may be preparing a new ordinance that would increase, or potentially remove, size limitations and strip away many safeguards placed in the original ordinance by hired consultant The Berkley Group. The fears voiced by citizens and several local organizations were heightened due to the fact that many changes being made to the original proposed ordinance had the fingerprints of the developer on them.
The arguments made by citizens during Tuesday night’s public comment period were well spoken, well researched, and hit on several key points that made an overwhelming argument for not approving industrial solar in Page County. Each speaker seemed to address a slightly different aspect of the issue, and they cited the backing of such locally influential groups as Luray Caverns, Shenandoah National Park and the Page County Farmers Association. As comments came in from doctors, farmers, environmentalists and business owners, the argument went well beyond the NIMBYs (Not In My Backyard).
It was stated that one local farm supply business projected losing up to $100,000 annually with the construction of a large-scale solar farm. When the figure was double checked, according to the speaker, it was estimated to be closer to $200,000 in annual losses — potentially spurring a reduction in workforce.
In addition to aesthetic and environmental concerns by surrounding landowners, many arguments pointed at potential damage to Page County’s two major industries, agriculture and tourism. The loss of valuable and diminishing farmland was indisputable, and the fear of damaging the natural landscape and viewshed, and thus tourism, was voiced by many.
Many arguments weren’t new. Some were reincarnations of views repeated publicly since 2018, when the whole process began with the initial Cape Solar and Dogwood Solar applications. However, the words seemed to resonate a little deeper on Tuesday.
“I appreciate the people that stood up tonight,” Chairman Morgan Phenix said, “some of them really hit a nerve tonight.”
When the onslaught of opposition ended and the supervisors got to the business of discussing the current proposed solar ordinance, a staunch supporter had an unexpected change of heart.
“I think we should stop the current ordinance [process]…and not allow any large-scale industrial solar farms,” Jeff Vaughan said Tuesday night as he lead off the discussion. “I think we should put a lid on the opportunity of solar generation in this county.”
The District 5 supervisor’s position took a 180-degree turn on Tuesday night from previous efforts to push an ordinance forward that would allow developer Urban Grid to construct a solar farm (Cape Solar) on 559 acres just north of Luray. However, Vaughan stated that after further research and listening to the comments of citizens, he now believes the county should “wait and see” what happens in other communities.
Several speakers, as well as some supervisors, referenced solar projects that had recently had strong opposition or been denied in places like Stuarts Draft, Culpeper County and Fauquier County, as well as problems with violations, stop work orders and stormwater runoff at solar sites in Campbell, Louisa and Essex counties.
Vaughan stated that since Page County already had “one horse in the stable” with the approval of the 20-megawatt facility near Stanley (Dogwood Solar), the board should use the experience of that facility’s operations to guide decisions on future applications. The Dogwood facility is located on a 340-acre site along Dam Acres Road, but the panels will only occupy a footprint of 76 acres. And at 20 megawatts, the facility would sit at the median output among the 140 solar projects listed in Virginia.
“In my lifetime, this topic we have in front of us right now, is one of the most critical topics for this county,” Vaughan said. “We have a lot of ground to cover yet.”
The board reached a consensus that the county administrator would work with legal counsel to draft a motion that would basically allow Dogwood Solar to move forward, while halting any further consideration of applications for utility-scale solar farms. Dogwood had been held up by a moratorium put in place that halted construction until the county adopted a solar ordinance. The project also still needs approvals from the Department of Environmental Quality in order to move forward. The board is expected to vote on a prepared motion in June.
Supervisors did not seem to be in a hurry to finish the process of drafting a solar ordinance for the county, as several members stated they wanted to see how the growing industry deals with various issues in other localities before opening up Page to more large-scale solar development.
“This document is not ready to move forward,” Louderback said, noting elements such as the omission of definitions, no liability clauses for landowners if the developer is in default (previously included, but removed), no established rates, and the removal of certain protective environmental restrictions.
“We’re here to represent the people and not our own opinions or personal interests,” Louderback continued. “We’re not listening well. We don’t have to rush. Let’s take our time and do it right.”
The fear of citizens and supervisors alike was that a rush to approve an ordinance (even after two-and-a-half years) could lead to costly problems down the road.
“If we open it up, how do we close it down?” District 4 supervisor Larry Foltz, a staunch supporter of the solar projects, asked during Tuesday night’s meeting.
Good question. That’s why the public has been asking the same question for two years. That’s really the whole point of having an ordinance. That’s why the county spent thousands of dollars to hire The Berkley Group to draft an ordinance. Glad to see the core questions are finally starting to resonate in the consciousness of our chosen leaders. Thanks for joining the conversation.
Consider Frederick County, who approved a 650-acre solar farm last July and another 1,000-acre facility in September. However, the more recent denial of a 300-acre solar facility drew a $7.5 million lawsuit from the developer. No solar ordinance was in place.
As several speakers stated Tuesday night, “precedent matters.”
For those keeping score, it’s two, two and two. While nearly all of the supervisors seem to strongly support property owner’s rights, there seems to be:
- Two supervisors — Guzy and Louderback — who clearly do not support large-scale solar, although they would compromise on the 200-acre limit and restrictions recommended by the planning commission and the Berkley Group;
- Two supervisors — Stroupe and Foltz — who clearly feel this is an opportunity for the county to welcome a new business and create a new tax revenue stream;
- Two supervisors — Vaughan and Phenix — who are wild cards, with Phenix always being somewhat unpredictable, and Vaughan softening his pro-business stance against the overwhelming opposition of numerous citizens and organizations (during an election year no less).
On Tuesday night, District 3 supervisor Mark Stroupe talked about the loss of industry and jobs over the last two decades and cited Page County’s ranking among the highest unemployment rates in the state.
“We need jobs in this county, we need businesses in this county, we need revenue…we have all these needs in the sheriff’s office and other departments…someone has to pay for that,” Stroupe said. “We talked about bringing jobs and business opportunities to this county…let’s get on it.”
While we agree with Stroupe’s general assertion, the financial gain being projected by Urban Grid is potentially misleading. It’s kinda like all the game shows you see on TV…the winners don’t actually get the amount you see flashing on the screen. Urban Grid has doubled its original estimates of what the county could gain financially, while (at least at one point) downsizing the scope of the project. However, even if the figures (and the market) hold up for three-plus decades, the revenue stream equals out to be less than one cent on the real estate tax rate (based on current figures, and increasingly less over time as property values rise).
Now, every little bit of revenue the county can get helps pay for various needs in various departments, including schools — but bringing in an extra $200,000 annually (less than three-tenths of one percent of the county’s total current operating budget) could risk the following:
- Loss of hundreds of acres of farmland (Page County produces more than $160 million in ag products annually);
- Damage to the tourism industry (opposed by the National Park Service);
- Losses for local cabin owners (and thus lower TOT funds);
- Losses of revenue for several local businesses (estimated at hundreds of thousands of dollars, resulting in less sales tax revenue);
- Endangering existing jobs (risking higher unemployment);
- Water quality to surrounding landowners (risking costly cleanup and public health hazard);
- Thousands of dollars wasted on a consultant (if the original proposed ordinance is trashed).
And this leaves out a litany of other concerns — what happens if the developer defaults and leaves town, what do we do with damaged panels containing toxic materials, impacts on wildlife, runoff controls (slopes were increased in new ordinance), and on, and on.
So, is the potential risk worth the potential gain?
For those who say yes, consider a request made earlier in the evening by the Page County Sheriff’s Office. The request was for funds to buy a drone to aid in search and rescue operations and other emergency calls. The request for that line item totaled more than $32,000 — for one drone. A “really good” drone can be purchased for less than $2,000. It doesn’t come with all the bells and whistles of the $32,000 model (night vision, etc.) — but could this possibly be an example of “wants versus needs”? That’s a $30,000 difference in one line item request made by one department, and we’re considering $200,000 in additional revenue to change the nature of our entire county.
While the county could use additional revenue to be competitive with teacher salaries, get law enforcement needed equipment and fund a growing gap for 24/7 EMS coverage, we have to ask ourselves — what are we willing to sacrifice for a few dollars more? With a $70 million budget, many might ask how we can we better manage what we have, especially within the sheriff’s office.
Perhaps the biggest lessons to be learned from this process is how important it is to do your homework, and don’t repeat the mistakes of the past.
We beg the supervisors to actually read the material that is given to them, be prepared at meetings, and stop asking staff to do what you should be doing — your own research. Make a phone call, look up articles on the internet, talk to people who have been through it (whatever the issue). If you do, meetings will run smoother, staff will be less stressed, and your improved understanding of the issues will be apparent for the public to see.
Developers coming into the county do not have the residents best interest in mind. They have only one thing in mind — profits. Our county leaders need look no further back than the first few years of Battle Creek Landfill’s operations to learn that lesson.
Let’s hope history doesn’t repeat itself. If it does, Page County taxpayers may once again spend decades paying off prior mistakes that were touted to bring great financial prosperity to our rural county.