SPOTSYLVANIA, Va. – Michael O’Bier has lived here on a hidden piece of land nestled against thousands of acres of trees in rural Virginia for 32 years.
Now, the trees are gone and the 62-year-old O’Bier says he’s packing belongings into cargo trailers. That's because the site of the largest proposed solar energy project on the East Coast could end up only 62 feet away from the side of his two-story home.
“I would have to leave,” O’Bier told Fox News on a drizzly afternoon this week, looking out over a field of already-cleared trees adjacent to his property. “I can’t live here.”
The company sPower wants to build a 500-Megawatt solar project on the 6,350-acre site in western Spotsylvania County, with 3,500 acres being used to house 1.8 million solar panels. The land, currently owned by seven different landowners who plan to sell it to the company, has already been cleared for timber in anticipation of the project. sPower has said the project "will be safe, reliable, quiet and screened from public view."
But a vocal contingent of activist-residents are working to pressure county officials to deny special use permits for sPower, arguing it would have disastrous environmental, economic and cultural impacts on the area. They point out that the proposed site is nearly half the size of Manhattan.
“Once you let the bulldozers loose, it’s really tough to stop the environmental damage,” said Dave Hammond, a 64-year-old retired chemical engineer who lives in the nearby Fawn Lake community.
Hammond, an active project opponent, said the project would be an “an environmental disaster” for the area. Aside from the thousands of acres of trees that have been cleared, the Concerned Citizens of Spotsylvania group is also worried about water usage at the site, erosion, toxic materials, the potential for fires and the decommissioning of equipment if the project were discontinued. They're also concerned that the price of electricity for residents could rise because of additional burdens on the conventional grid, though sPower insists it will have no impact on consumer rates.
Opponents argue that the project would forever change the character of historic Spotsylvania County, where the Battle of the Wilderness, the Battle of Chancellorsville and the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House took place. “The center of the Civil War is a mile and half from this thing,” said Kevin McCarthy, a 64-year-old retired music director who also lives in Fawn Lake.
They also argue that the county would lose money from lost tax revenue because the solar panel project would lower property values for homeowners -- an argument sPower contests. During a driving tour of the area, Sean Fogarty, a 63-year-old retiree with a background in engineering, pointed to a lot purchased by a couple who planned to build a lakeside home not far from the site. Fogarty said the owners have since decided to sell it because of the solar project.
The Spotsylvania project would be the largest east of the Rocky Mountains and opponents point out that other solar power plants of comparable size are found in sparsely populated areas like deserts. “You’re changing ecosystems forever, and you’re getting closer and closer to people,” Fogarty said of the decision to build in Virginia.
But Taylor Keeney, a spokeswoman for the project, pushed back against the residents’ concerns in a phone interview with Fox News. She provided a copy of a poll commissioned by sPower that found that 67 percent of registered voters in Spotsylvania County are supportive of the solar power plant.
She said the construction project will benefit the local economy, employing between 700 and 1,000 workers while taking a year and half to two years to complete -- though opponents said they doubt it will lead to many permanent jobs for locals. Microsoft and Apple have announced plans to purchase energy from the project.
Keeney said the opposition to the project is particularly vocal, but others, like Spotsylvania resident David Wilson, whose property also sits next to the proposed site, are for it.
“We are very proud of the possibility of Spotsylvania County paving the way to a future of clean and renewable energy and we hope this board also sees the value of this project,” Wilson wrote in a recent email to the members of the Spotsylvania County Board of Supervisors.
As for the concerns from the opponents, Keeney said the company doesn’t believe area property values will go down, citing the findings of a local appraiser commissioned to study the issue. “From everything we can tell, there is no evidence of property value declines,” she said.
When it comes to the environmental concerns, she said the company is subject to oversight by 30 different agencies, and will be held to strict standards on stormwater and erosion control. As for the trees, she said the land was already being harvested for timber. She said sPower will preserve about 2,500 acres to protect streams, watersheds and wildlife and keep trails for residents and visitors to use.
“They are going above and beyond from an environmental standpoint,” she said.
Keeney denied the project would alter the character of the area, saying those who visit the battlefields wouldn’t know there were solar panels nearby. “The project will be completely hidden from view from the road,” she said, “You won’t be able to see it.”
Still, the project’s future remains uncertain: its application goes before the Spotsylvania County Board of Supervisors on Feb. 26. The county’s planning commission in January voted to deny two of the three proposed sites, only recommending a special use permit for 245 acres. But the Board of Supervisors does not have to abide by the planning commission’s recommendations.
As for O’Bier, he said no one quite knows how a solar power plant in Spotsylvania will actually turn out. Already, the trees up to his property line have been cut down and he's moved trailers to guard against the new wind. He said he’s concerned about what a solar power plant being next door means for his four kids and 15 grandchildren.
“Everybody has their theory,” he said. “The solar panel people say one thing, the other people say something else. Nobody knows.”