The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A company suggested installing solar panels near Virginia Civil War battlefields. Locals raged — and what happened next will happen again, experts say.

Civil War historian Ron Maxwell speaks to a group of citizens and conservationists at the Greenville mansion in Culpeper, Va., in August. (Clint Schemmer/Culpeper Star-Exponent)

They all valued the land — thousands of rolling acres of agricultural turf in Culpeper County, Va. — but for very different reasons.

Energy company Cricket Solar saw it as a host site for more than 380,000 solar panels that could create a powerful source of renewable energy, as well as construction jobs. The coalition of Culpeper residents and historians dead-set against the installation saw it as precious historic turf, pockmarked with Civil War battlefields and river crossings pivotal in shaping the nation’s destiny, that should be kept pristine.

And for 60-year-old farmer Richard Dugan, one of a half dozen aging Culpeper residents who own a portion of the contested plot, the land was a legacy he hoped to keep in his family by any means necessary — including by leasing it to a solar company he saw as his financial salvation.

Over the past year, those conflicting visions of the proper use of roughly 1,600 acres of agricultural land in Culpeper spurred a debate that raged in town halls, across the pages of local newspapers and on radio airwaves. Things came to a head late last month when the group fighting the project, Citizens for Responsible Solar, organized a rally at which renowned Civil War historian Ron Maxwell led attendees on trolley tours of the area. A day later, Cricket — which already had revised its plans at least twice to address residents’ complaints — informed Culpeper County officials it was withdrawing its application to build solar panels in the area.

“Cricket has been working diligently over the last few months redesigning the Project boundaries to protect wetlands, improve efficiencies, and respond to community concerns,” the Cricket letter states. “However, at this time, the company believes a withdrawal of the Project is necessary in order to ensure that any Project proposed represents Cricket’s best effort.” Company officials are debating whether to come back with another proposal down the road.

This kind of battle is likely to play out repeatedly in coming years, according to experts.

Large, ground-based solar installations such as Cricket’s are popping up “all over the country,” said John Perlin, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley who studies the history of solar energy. That’s because solar technology has become both more efficient and less expensive in recent years, Perlin said.

“It’s become the power of choice for utilities,” he said. “In 1980, there was only 1 million watts of solar in the world, and today there’s over 500 billion. It’s mushrooming.”

As solar expands across the United States — especially as it stretches into the northeast, rich in Colonial and Revolutionary War-era landmarks — “you’re going to get these fights because large solar fields will intrude on people’s valued properties,” Perlin said.

It’s already happening in some places: Connecticut state regulators in May denied a developer permission to build a solar farm on 25 acres after locals lamented that the installation would harm Native American artifacts and historical stone walls. Elsewhere in Virginia, Spotsylvania County residents fought long and hard — but ultimately unsuccessfully — to prevent solar company SPower from building over 1 million solar panels on roughly 10 square miles of rural land, in part alleging the project would infringe on Civil War battlefields in that area. In April, SPower announced its project had been approved by Spotsylvania officials and would be moving forward.

Sam McLearen, director of planning for Culpeper County, said his office has seen three applications for large solar installations over the past two years — although Cricket’s was by far the most massive. (The first was rejected, in part due to similar concerns that it would infringe on historic ground, while the second was approved and is proceeding, McLearen said.)

The spike in requests spurred Culpeper’s Board of Supervisors to adopt an official set of guidelines for “utility-scale solar facility development” in April 2018. McLearen said his office is girding for more conflict ahead.

“We’re seeing interest in Culpeper and a lot of other localities in Virginia,” McLearen said. “But Virginia’s going to be a difficult state, with all of its historic resources . . . we’re going to have to balance those things because that history does exist, but new things are valuable, too.”

Cricket filed its first application to build the solar panels in December and spent the next several months revising its plans in accordance with residents’ feedback, as well as cultural and environmental studies it undertook. The company scrapped an early version of its proposal that would have covered the site of the Battle of Morton’s Ford — an inconclusive 1864 Civil War clash that saw more than 300 deaths — with solar panels.

Residents were also concerned that the solar panel installation might increase storm water runoff, according to Susan Ralston, president of Citizens for Responsible Solar, and were worried about the fate of nearby wetlands. Some worried that it might drive down property values, as well.

Whitney Rubin, development manager for Cricket’s California-based parent company, BayWa R.E., said the company’s environmental studies showed that runoff would not be a problem — and she said Cricket’s repeated revisions were meant in part to avoid wetland areas. The overall impact on the land would have been minimal, she said.

Cricket’s most recent iteration would have placed a maximum of 386,000 solar panels on the plot, generating about 80 megawatts of solar energy each year and creating roughly 200 construction jobs, according to Rubin. Other details including the project’s cost were never finalized, she said.

Rubin said the cancellation is not due to Citizens for Responsible Solar’s campaign. Instead, she attributed it in part to constraints imposed on the installation by nearby wetlands and to Cricket’s desire to build a cost-effective project. She also said that the company hasn’t decided what it will do next and that “internal discussions” are ongoing.

Nonetheless, Citizens for Responsible Solar is claiming victory, jubilant over the preservation of sites such as Raccoon Ford, a river crossing once used by the Marquis de Lafayette and, later, by Union and Confederate troops. Ralston said she is equally “shocked and thrilled.”

It isn’t likely that Cricket will ever be able to satisfy the group’s concerns over using historic lands for solar panels, according to Clark B. Hall, a retired federal investigator who spent decades studying Culpeper County, becoming the area’s unofficial historian. Hall has been a key member of Citizens for Responsible Solar since Ralston formed the group this summer, a few weeks after she and other neighbors became aware of the proposed solar installation — which would have been located very close to where she lives.

Citizens for Responsible Solar, which boasts about 40 active members, kicked into high gear almost immediately after its founding, raising tens of thousands of dollars. Ralston used some of the money to hire PR and marketing firm Shirley & Banister Public Affairs, which circulated an anti-solar petition, conducted a poll of Culpeper residents and recruited Maxwell to join the fight, among other things.

Hall said he was willing to do anything it took.

He called Culpeper County — which for many years housed the dividing line between Union and Confederate troops — “the most fought-over, the most camped-upon, the most contested county in the Civil War.” Hall said he’s certain there are dead soldiers scattered unburied across the land.

“As a result of the Civil War, a greater good emerged, and we commemorate that on battlefields we save, not that we put solar panels on,” Hall said. “It’s callous to put a solar panel field where men fought and died.”

Citizens for Responsible Solar’s work is far from done, Ralston said. The group, aware that another energy company could propose a new solar installation at any time, is now pushing Culpeper County to adopt an ordinance that would limit large solar fields to industrial land. McLearen said officials are considering the idea.

Meanwhile, landowners such as Dugan are left to figure out a new strategy for how they can age in place — and still deliver cherished family property to their descendants.

Dugan has lived his entire life in Culpeper on a roughly 59-acre plot of farmland he inherited from his parents. He is unsure what will happen now that the solar project seems unlikely to materialize. In the immediate, he’ll keep farming — “as long as my body can go” — and try to find another renter.

“At my age, I was ready to slow down from the farming aspect, and I don’t have nobody coming behind me that wants to farm,” Dugan said. “This was a good opportunity to get some money, help with retirement, and then I can keep the land for my kids and grandkids — I don’t have to sell.”

He sighed and added, “I guess I’ll just have to keep knocking on as best I can.”