WINCHESTER — The Frederick County Planning Commission voted unanimously Wednesday night to recommend that county supervisors grant a conditional use permit (CUP) for the construction of an enormous solar power plant near Stephens City.
Richmond-based Urban Grid, representing Foxglove Solar LLC of Stevensville, Maryland, plans to spend about $101 million to develop the facility on approximately 669 acres in the vicinity of Hites, Marlboro, Klines Mill, Clark and Vaucluse roads in the county’s Back Creek District. However, ground-mounted solar panels and related equipment, access roads, security fencing and landscaping are to be installed on only about 370 acres, documents show.
The project is drawing mixed reactions from owners of nearby properties.
Solar panels are to cover more than 18 million square feet — an area roughly the equivalent of 400 football fields, commission Vice Chairman Roger Thomas remarked.
The plant is to generate more than 140 million kilowatt hours of electricity per year, enough to power more than 11,500 homes, said Urban Grid Project Development Manager Rob Propes.
Tyler Klein, the county’s senior planner, said electricity is to be transmitted to First Energy’s adjacent 138-kilovolt line and then to PJM Interconnection’s regional power grid, which serves 13 states and Washington, D.C.
“The proximity of the transmission line was instrumental in the siting of this project,” Klein told the commission.
He said the project is “generally compatible” with the area’s rural character, as well as its homes and agricultural operations.
Some of those who spoke during a public hearing on the project disagreed. Yet others extended a warm welcome to the plant.
“How can the character not be changed by a project that requires a decommissioning plan?” said Lisa Higgs of Hites Road.
The decommissioning plan, prepared by the law firm of Walsh Colucci Lubeley & Walsh, is part of the permit application. Propes said the equipment to be installed is expected to produce electricity from sunlight for 35 years before it wears out. The plan covers the eventual removal of the equipment and the restoration of the acreage, which will be leased from landowners, to essentially its current condition.
“I love the peace and quiet,” as well as seeing the wildlife in the countryside, said Patricia Campbell, who lives near the Valerie Hill Vineyard. She said she fears those things being lost if the power plant is developed.
A “solar farm,” said Lane Brumback of Woodbine Farm, is “our best option in maintaining the peacefulness and integrity of our natural landscape.” Basically, it would keep too many homes from being developed in the area, she said.
“With houses, they’re there forever,” added landowner Paul Anderson. “You never have the opportunity to take them out,” unlike solar energy equipment.
Planning Commission members expressed a desire to protect the area’s agricultural heritage and growers’ livelihoods.
Economic conditions are creating “a real struggle for farmers and orchards just to make a real go of it,” said member Gary Oates. When growing crops becomes unproductive, a farmer’s last option for remaining financially afloat may be selling or leasing his land, he indicated.
“To me, this is the perfect solution,” Oates said of the power plant, because “the land stays in tact.”
“The land’s gone forever” if it’s someday developed for houses, he continued.
“If we don’t help agriculture, we’re going to lose agriculture,” said Back Creek District member John Jewell, who made the motion to recommend granting the CUP.
The Frederick County Board of Supervisors will consider issuing the permit during an upcoming meeting.
Among conditions suggested by county planning officials for granting the permit are the installation of buffers and screening, including a chain-link fence around the electrical compound and both deciduous and evergreen trees and shrubs.
Batteries, specifically the type used for mass storage of electricity before it eventually is transferred to a power grid, would not be allowed under the CUP.
Plans are for construction of the power facility to start next year and be completed in early 2022, Propes said. Construction is to occur between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays, he said.
Construction would not affect nearby streams and wetlands or historic attractions such as Miller Cemetery and Cedar Creek Battlefield, he added.