When Nat Draper bought 13 acres in Hanover County 17 years ago to build a house, the big appeal was the area’s beauty. He remembers driving an ATV down the half-mile-long driveway to the mailbox with his daughters on a sled tied behind him, snow draped over the rolling hills on both sides.
It was everything he wanted — a good environment to raise his kids while being connected to nature.
A notice from the county arrived in his mailbox at the end of October: Rainbow Trout Solar Partners wanted to replace the summer corn and soybeans and winter wheat that grew for all those years on the other side of his driveway with more than 15,000 solar panels. As he stood in his kitchen with the open letter, Draper was surprised, then conflicted.
“It’s kind of a tough thing to think about, because I do believe in renewable energy,” said Draper, who works at an environmental nonprofit. “But I don’t think that the site is a good location for solar.”
Solar farms, already on the rise in Virginia over the past few years, are expected to proliferate in response to a state law passed this year that promises to phase out fossil fuels by 2050. But Virginians are pushing back at the local level against plans they say will bring an eyesore too close to home.
Next to Draper’s home in Montpelier, solar modules as tall as 15 feet would cover a little more than half of the property’s 85 acres, along with a 7-foot-tall fence.
Developers say the solar farm won’t have traffic or generate noise louder than a refrigerator and promised to preserve the area’s character as they harvest sunlight. Neighbors are on board with the idea of solar energy as a clean alternative to coal and natural gas but know one thing for certain: They don’t want to look at a solar facility.
The backlash against Rainbow Trout’s placement is also part of a trend of growing opposition to development in Hanover County. Susan Dibble, representative of the South Anna District on the county’s Board of Supervisors, said that with each case, the board makes sure whatever it approves doesn’t disrupt the quality of life or surrounding area.
Hanover is the latest flashpoint, but it’s not alone among rural areas where residents don’t want to see solar facilities nearby. Thirty miles north in Spotsylvania County, residents in a gated community called Fawn Lake fought unsuccessfully against the building of the largest solar farm east of the Rocky Mountains near their community in 2019. A planned 324-acre solar project in Chesterfield County was also met with opposition from neighbors before ultimately winning approval.
Since solar is relatively new to the commonwealth, Rachel Smucker, Virginia policy and development manager for the Chesapeake Solar and Storage Association, said pushback for these types of projects is expected — people aren’t used to looking at it, but she said the benefits outweigh the tarnished view.
“As far as the benefits for these solar projects, especially given the financial and economic state that we’re in both as a commonwealth and as a country, solar is really one of the solutions that’s going to pull us out of this economic crisis,” Smucker said. “And I think that can especially be seen in how many jobs, how many local jobs will be created in Virginia, while also delivering substantial financial benefits to our localities and our communities.”
There’s only one other solar facility in Hanover, and it’s being built off Mechanicsville Turnpike, said county planning manager Gretchen Biernot. Upon completion, that project will run at 20 megawatts.
Rainbow Trout is supposed to create about 50 temporary full-time construction jobs with a total of $975,000 in wages, according to the application.
Stephanie Ballard, who owns the property, has been contacted about placing a solar farm there before, though it never panned out.
For her, leasing land for the project provides another source of income while also giving her a means to keep it. If it weren’t this, she said, she’d look for the property to be developed as a subdivision.
Biernot said that if it were developed under its current zoning, eight more houses could crop up on the property. If Ballard applied for rezoning, the number could go up to 13.
“I think solar’s the future,” Ballard said.
As far as neighbors’ concerns, Ballard said the project is still being assessed and it will still be a rural area.
But neighbors aren’t convinced it should be there, citing concerns with visual disruption and environmental impacts. Draper said it seems wrong for the farmland he’s always known to be turned into something industrial.
Draper doesn’t love the idea of a subdivision next door, but he and Tom Hicks, who lives nearby, say new houses would be better than all those solar panels.
The $6.5 million facility is sized to supply local homes and businesses with 11,805 megawatt-hours of clean energy per year for those served by the Rappahannock Electric Cooperative, the permit application reads, enough to power 963 homes annually. It’s being built by EDF Renewables based in Charlottesville in partnership with REC and Old Dominion Electric Cooperative. Construction is supposed to take anywhere from six to nine months, and the project’s lifetime is anticipated to be anywhere from 25 to 35 years.
The project is slated for discussion among members of the Hanover Planning Commission in February and could go to the Board of Supervisors in March.
Hicks noted that there’s no mention in the county’s comprehensive plan, which was adopted in 2018, about the placement of solar facilities. Biernot said the county anticipates adding language about solar farms to the plan next year.
“I think we can see this solar-generating facility phenomenon, if you want to call it that, growing very rapidly, given the change in the law,” Hicks said. “And I think the county really needs to take a step back and put some real thought into where these facilities should go, and what kind of criteria they should use to evaluate whether a facility should be sited at a particular place, and then what sort of requirements they impose on the builder of these things, because like I said, there’s nothing in the comprehensive plan right now.”
Under the conditional-use permit the developer needs the county to approve before moving forward, the land would remain designated agricultural, Biernot said.
Other residents near the area also question the threat to their farming practices. In a letter to the editor for the Mechanicsville Local, Carolyn Varnier, who lives on a little over 10 acres near the site, and Donald Petty said that while they also don’t oppose solar, they don’t think the facility meets the criteria it would take to be placed on agricultural land.
Fitness to the area is a concern across the board for residents.
“This area, even in the comprehensive plan, it’s designated as rural,” Hicks said. “Most of the people moved out here because they wanted to live away from industrial and commercial development.”
One of the biggest issues Hicks takes with the project is that it’s as large as possible without needing a more stringent state review. Solar facilities that are 5 megawatts or larger require a state permit by rule from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality under Virginia code.
The facility plans to operate at 4.999, according to the conditional-use permit. Hicks sent a letter to the DEQ requesting the applicant applies for a permit by rule.
All solar projects in Virginia go through the DEQ for a permit under Virginia code, but the process becomes more strenuous at 5 megawatts, said DEQ renewable energy program manager Mary Major.
Projects over 5 megawatts with a disturbance zone of 10 acres have to go through a 15-step process to get a full permit by rule.
Developers say that because of the infrastructure near the site, building bigger wasn’t possible.
“The DEQ threshold of 5 MW is often the delineation between a transmission level project and a distribution level project,” said EDF’s vice president of corporate communications Sandi Briner and project applicant Douglas Carton in the statement.
“It is uncommon to have distribution level projects greater than 5 MW and we are only allowed to provide distribution level power for local consumption. Due to capacity constraints of local distribution lines along with the upgrades that would be required to pass the power through a distribution substation, larger projects almost always interconnect to either sub-transmission or transmission level infrastructure — that is not an option here. The project will get submitted to DEQ for approval.”
On Friday, Major said EDF Renewables hadn’t yet submitted a notice of intent. She said most projects won’t notify the state until they’re approved at the county level.
Draper wonders how something like this will affect real estate values. Hicks, who runs and bikes past the site, is concerned about how it will impact the area visually.
“It’s like walking on the beach,” Hicks said. “It’s really nice to look around and see wildlife and see wilderness and see natural beauty. [The facility], it’ll ruin all that.”
Then there’s the worry over potential environmental impacts. Draper especially wonders about the property’s two wetlands and how erosion may impact the local tributaries.
One neighbor, Lauren Wade, created a petition that’s collected almost 300 signatures as of Saturday evening.
County comments that came out Dec. 4 suggested a 6-foot buffer with trees be added to the project along St. Peter’s Church Road. Old Mill Road, which partially lies in neighbor Owen Pollard’s property, is supposed to be an access point to the project, and the county said the applicant would need his signature on the application. A call to a phone number listed for Pollard went unanswered.
Biernot said via email that a suggested community meeting for the project that includes the applicant, neighbors and the representative from both the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors hasn’t yet been organized. Briner and Carton said in an email statement that they’re planning a virtual opportunity to discuss the project and concerns.
Draper said the neighbors intend to meet with their planning commissioner Dec. 16 to discuss their concerns.