RACCOON FORD—Rumblings related to the latest utility scale solar project possibly coming to Culpeper County are surfacing as the planning commission prepares to get a first look this week at the 80-megawatt proposal of California-based Cricket Solar that would place 271,556 panels on 807 acres in a rural, sparsely populated area near the Rapidan River.
Opponents of the project planned for the southern part of Culpeper, near the Orange County line, primarily along Algonquin Trail, Virginia 647, say it will destroy the area’s historic resources while proponents say it will generate clean energy in an area in need of an economic infusion.
Retired farmer sees opportunity for land
A month ago, Dwayne Forrest closed the dairy operation on Algonquin Trail that he ran seven days a week for the past 46 years. Allowing about 100 acres of it to be used for the solar farm may just allow him to keep the farm in the family, he said Monday in a phone conversation .
“The dairy industry was not the kind of business where you could set aside a large retirement account. It’s been tough. It took me 35 years to pay off a 30-year mortgage, but I did,” Forrest said.
When he bought the farm with his parents all those years ago, they knew the land was not the best quality, and the price they paid reflected that, he said.
“It’s some of the poorest farmland in the county so I do believe using it for solar is the best use,” Forrest said. “This would allow us to keep ownership of the land and if one of my grandchildren wants to do something with it in the future we could still pass it along.”
He “absolutely” considered it an opportunity when contacted by Cricket Solar more than a year ago.
“Timing is everything,” Forrest said, of dairy prices getting so bad and looking for alternatives. “Then this comes along and I thought, ‘Well, it’s probably a long shot, but I am definitely interested.’ ”
Asked about potential opposition due to historic resources in the area, the retired dairy farmer said there is plenty of solar power in Europe.
“Everybody is about diversity — you can mix solar and historic and they get along,” Forrest said.
If a solar farm was placed in front of a historic structure that would be one thing, he said, adding it’s another thing to hinder solar development because somebody might have had a cavalry operation over it 150 years ago.
“We have plenty of land being preserved for historic purposes,” Forrest said.
An estimated $771,464 in total annual lease payments will be made to five landowners associated with the project, according to Cricket Solar’s application for a conditional use permit. The Culpeper County Planning Commission will get a first look at the application during a work session Wednesday at 7 p.m. in the county boardroom. Since it’s only a work session, no public comment will be taken.
Fight for historic preservation
At least one neighboring property owner is mounting a campaign against the solar proposal.
“I’m going to put up a hell of a fight,” said Chantilly resident Ron Vecchioni, owner of the circa 1850 St. Paul’s Episcopal Church along Algonquin Trail.
If built, the Cricket Solar project will surround the church that was once occupied by the troops of George Armstrong Custer, Union cavalry commander during the 1863-64 winter encampment of the Army of the Potomac.
“St. Paul’s vestryman, Monroe Waugh, stated that the church was badly damaged and an entire wall was pulled down to make the building more suitable for horses,” according to “Early Churches of Culpeper County, Virginia,” published by the Culpeper Historical Society.
A pilot and government contractor for the Federal Aviation Administration, Vecchioni bought the church building about a year ago with an eye toward turning it into a wedding chapel, living history museum and his retirement quarters.
“Who would want to get married in a church with solar panels 40 feet away?” he said in a phone interview Monday.
Vecchioni also believes solar project construction around the church will destroy its stone foundation. He held a meeting Saturday at the church with about 22 residents of the area and elsewhere to gauge opposition to the solar farm, claiming the vast majority were against it.
“I needed a retirement project, something to do, all I want to do is make a little bit of money and leave some legacy behind,” Vecchioni said. “When I became aware of the history, I knew it had to be preserved.”
Noted Civil War historian Clark “Bud” Hall said the Cricket Solar project is a bad idea whose time will never come. He described it as an industrial project that would “catastrophically devastate” historic resources in the area, including a core portion of the Morton’s Ford Civil War Battlefield, where fierce fighting occurred Feb. 6, 1864 following an icy river crossing.
Nearby Raccoon Ford, and its associated battle, is the most famous river crossing in the entire eastern front of the war, Hall added. The proposed solar project, in addition, would be close to three circa 1840 antebellum mansions in the area, he said. The area also has Native American history along a route used by the Marquis de Lafayette during the American Revolution, according to Hall.
“There could not be a worse place to put this,” he said of the solar proposal.
Hall, asked about the property rights of farmers in the area, said he felt industrial solar projects take advantage of unfortunate economic situations in the world of traditional agriculture.
“They come in with sharp elbows and promise the moon and the larger public good suffers as a result,” he said.
‘You can’t save the whole thing’
Another property owner whose land could be part of the Cricket Solar project disagreed. “I am a big proponent of green energy and to me, this is another form of using the land for agriculture, harvesting something off of your property — this time it is sunlight,” said Robert Preihs in a phone call Monday .
He owns 234 acres along Algonquin Trail, Virginia 647, on which a portion of the solar project would be built, connecting to the Dominion transmission line traversing the northern part of a combination of parcels. Owner of Rob’s Car Wash in Fredericksburg, Preihs for years also owned and ran Culpeper Cleaners and another local carwash. He lived with his family and helped run the dairy farm along Algonquin Trail for more than 20 years before retiring to Florida, where Preihs now resides.
It’s been a couple of years since Cricket Solar contacted him about using the farmland for the solar initiative, he said, calling it a long, slow process. Preihs said he plans to keep the house and barn sites amid the solar panels, noting that the longtime local dairy farmer who rents the farm from him will be retiring by the end of the year.
“He’s just tired and his kids don’t see much value in taking it over,” Preihs said.
Asked about history in the area, the retired businessman said he thinks history is important. He added the entire northern half of Virginia had guys marching or riding all over it during the Civil War. “You can’t save the whole thing,” Preihs said.
He added he might change his mind if it is proven that his land hosted historically significant battles.
The Culpeper County Planning & Zoning Department has issued its staff report and case analysis of the solar application, addressing various issues, including protecting environmentally sensitive areas from development, as specified in the Comprehensive Plan. In the report, staff recommended a minimum 50-feet buffer on either side of any stream in the project area; the applicant has agreed to a minimum setback of 150 feet along the Rapidan River.
In considering the project, the planning commission board of supervisors will rely on the following criteria: Will it adversely affect the health or safety of people living in the neighborhood; will it be detrimental to the public welfare or injurious to property in the neighborhood; and is it in conflict with the Comprehensive Plan?
“There are goals in the Comprehensive Plan … which this project supports and some goals … this project does not support,” according to county staff.