Editorial – Rural Virginia under assault in Richmond

Published 5:49 pm Tuesday, February 6, 2024

Virginia’s ambitious quest for carbon-free electricity production might mean the ruin of its beautiful countryside.

As our Stephen Faleski reported in Jan. 24’s edition, two bills pending in the General Assembly would allow state bureaucrats to site massive industrial solar farms over the objection of localities’ planning commissions and elected bodies.

Even in a so-called “Dillon Rule” state, where state government is all powerful, it’s an audacious attempt to impose Richmond’s will on communities like Isle of Wight and Surry that want to preserve their rural identity.

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The legislation’s sponsors — Del. Richard “Rip” Sullivan of Fairfax and Sen. Creigh Deeds of Charlottesville — have been candid about its purpose. The Virginia Clean Economy Act mandates two things that are proving difficult to achieve:

  • At least 16,100 megawatts, or just under two-thirds of the state’s electricity, must come from solar or offshore wind farms by the end of 2035.
  • Dominion Energy, the state’s dominant utility, must transition to 100% carbon-free energy sources by 2045. 

Those are admirable goals, but the law’s supporters should have been honest with citizens at the time about the radical actions necessary to achieve them. 

House Bill 636 and Senate Bill 567 would create an approval process for projects capable of generating 50 or more megawatts, which would be overseen by the State Corporation Commission rather than local governing bodies, Faleski reported. Should a project meet the SCC’s to-be-determined criteria but be denied approval by its host locality, the project’s developer would be authorized under the legislation to appeal the local vote to the SCC.

Rural communities should be team players, Sullivan contends, saying that they have a “role to play” in achieving the Clean Economy Act’s mandates.

Thankfully, rural interests are pushing back.

“I am in firm opposition to any legislation that would circumvent Isle of Wight County from deciding the best use of their land,” said state Sen. Emily Jordan, R-Isle of Wight, whose Senate District 17 covers a prime target of Dominion-backed solar developers: Western Tidewater. 

Isle of Wight, which has approved nine solar farms since 2015, amended its zoning ordinance last year to include a provision capping the cumulative acreage devoted to solar at 2% of the county’s “prime farm soils,” or 2,446 acres. Surry added language to the county’s comprehensive plan capping the cumulative acreage devoted to solar at 10% of the county’s developable land, or 15,278 acres.  

The state legislation would render those actions meaningless.

“Taking the decision-making abilities away from local government completely disregards each rural community’s special history, nature and geology,” said Surry County Dendron District Supervisor Amy Drewry, comparing the proposal to eminent domain. “It is a draconian solution to a problem that could be creatively dealt with in other ways.”