Conservation Vs. Solar in Powhatan County

Conservation easements don’t just block projects like pipelines, highways and electric transmission lines. As demonstrated in Powhatan County Monday, they can block solar farms as well.

Faced with skepticism from the Powhatan County Board of Supervisors, Cartersville Solar LLC has withdrawn a proposal to build a solar farm on a 3,000-acre tract of property, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

The proposal had encountered opposition from Powhatan residents. Citizens commenting at public hearings cited negative ecological impact on protected wetlands — the only remaining wildlife corridor connecting the James and Appomattox rivers — and on rare and endangered species.

Cartersville Solar had acquired 2,998 acres near the intersection of Cartersville and Duke roads for the purpose of building a solar farm. (The RTD article does not say how much power it would generate.) In November, the Powhatan County Planning Commission voted to recommend denial of the project on the grounds that the proposed use is not consistent with the 2010 Long-Range Comprehensive Plan. Part of the project would fall into an area designed Priority Conservation Area and Protected Land.

On Monday, Parker Sloan with Cypress Creek Renewables (presumably, there is some connection between Cypress Creek, a North Carolina solar developer, and Cartersville Solar, which lists a Henrico County business address, but the RTD did not make that clear) explained how the company proposed making 400 acres of the project a conservation easement. After the public hearing, in which seven people spoke against and one person in favor of granting a conditional use permit, Cartersville Solar withdrew the application.

One speaker at the hearing, representing Powhatan Properties Land and Lumber, noted that if the solar farm was not approved, all the trees would be cut down for timber.

Bacon’s bottom line: There are legitimate reasons for creating conservation areas. There are ecologically significant wildlife habitats and aesthetically significant viewsheds that are worth preserving. Personally, I’m a big supporter of protecting mountains, rivers, and scenic byways from residential or commercial development — as long as there is a legitimate public purpose. Whether tax-abatement easements should be granted to protect the horse-farm vistas of retired multimillionaires, keep taxes low for other large landowners, or advance other private purposes are questions well worth having. In this case, Powhatan has declared part of the land in question to be part of a conservation “area.” The designation is aspirational and does not create a legal requirement. But it has given Powhatan supervisors a fig leaf for blocking the solar farm.

Question: Will conservation areas and/or conservation easements, put in place to protect the environment, now be used to block solar farms… a renewable energy source that protects the environment?

As an aside: I would observe that rural Virginians do not share the environmental preoccupations of urban elites. Most do not give a fig about climate change. They don’t believe the alarums above global warming, they don’t share the enthusiasm of reducing CO2 emissions, and they don’t like the idea of giant solar developers converting entire square miles of farmland and timber into solar farms. They worry about the impact on the tax base. They worry about viewsheds. They worry about maintaining the integrity of their communities. And they convince themselves that solar farms create a localized environmental menace. I don’t find their arguments terribly compelling, but there is no denying that resistance to solar farms has sprouted all across rural Virginia.

The local opposition strikes me as rustic and unsophisticated. That’s not surprising. Solar farm protesters don’t get support from the deep-pocketed network of environmentalist and social-justice activist groups that have mastered the art of P.R. spin. Indeed Virginia media, which lavishes attention on the foes of natural gas pipelines, pays solar controversies little heed — other than treating them as hyper-local stories in county zoning controversies. As homeowners and small landowners — and probably Trump voters, to boot — solar foes don’t stroke the erogenous zones that excite today’s generation of Social Justice Warrior journalists. But they do have one set of allies — local elected officials. And they are responsive indeed.

Editor’s note: I have re-written parts of this post after receiving feedback from a land use attorney. In the original post, I was not sufficiently clear in distinguishing between conservation areas and conservation easements.