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The key to easing land-use disputes? Listening, says Virginia solar developer

PHOTO BY -mrganso / Pixabay

A Prince William County project offers hope that Virginia solar developers can navigate land-use politics in the region.


Aid a solar energy growth spurt and rising anxieties over land-use and development in the state, Virginia solar companies are learning how to integrate projects with their surroundings.

A recent example in northern Virginia is proof that solar companies can navigate aesthetic and other concerns that often arise around projects, particularly in areas new to larger-scale solar projects.

Matthew Meares, principal of Richmond-based Virginia Solar, was thrilled to find relatively flat property in Prince William County near existing transmission lines and other electricity infrastructure that can deliver energy to a hub of nearby data centers and other large users hungry for renewables.

Better yet: the project was well-received by neighbors and authorities because it meshes well with the Rural Crescent, a plan the increasingly suburban county introduced in 1998 to limit development in its northern and western stretches.

The 20-megawatt project will cover 225 acres of a 331-acre farm near Nokesville and should be online by 2020. The property won’t be subdivided, and the community is soothed about welcoming a quiet, productive neighbor that won’t cause traffic jams. Nokesville is 40-plus miles from the nation’s capital.

“If we hadn’t fit in with the Rural Crescent concept, it could have been a different conversation,” Meares said.

Indeed, as solar booms in Virginia, some of those conversations have been, and could continue to be, much more contentious.

Just a few weeks after Meares received a special-use permit for his Prince William project in mid-October, neighbors a few counties to the south and west filed a lawsuit against a separate solar project. They want to halt an array that Florida-based NextEra Energy Resources, parent of Florida Power & Light Co., has slated for 1,000 acres of farmland in Culpeper County.

The complaint claims the project will destroy scenic views, cause excessive glare, decrease property values and generate excessive noise and traffic during construction. The lawsuit chides the county Board of Supervisors for approving a conditional use permit, which reversed a recommendation by the planning commission.

Similar pushback has come from residents and local authorities in several rural counties reluctant to embrace a rapid energy transition that they worry will alter the character of their communities.

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