WINCHESTER — The Frederick County Planning Commission voted 8-2 Wednesday night to recommend approval of a conditional-use permit to allow construction of a 430-acre solar power generating facility.

Commission Chairman Kevin Kenney and commissioners Alan Morrison, Kay Dawson, Gary Oates, Paige Manuel, John Jewell, Betsy Brumback and Elizabeth Kozel supported the project, while Roger Thomas and Charles Triplett did not.

Boulder, Colorado-based Torch Clean Energy wants to build the 40-to-60-megawatt (MW) facility on land south of Marlboro Road (Route 631), east and west of Strode McLeod Lane, north of Family Drive and west of the CSX rail corridor. The properties, which are primarily used for agriculture, total about 636.7 acres. Of this, a maximum of 430 acres would be used for solar modules. Frederick County tax maps show that the largest properties are owned by a limited liability company for Fruit Hill Orchard and the Roy E. and Loretta G. McDonald Trustees.

The project represents the second phase of the Bartonsville Energy Facility. It would be situated immediately south and adjacent to first phase. In September 2020, the Frederick County Board of Supervisors approved a CUP for the first phase, which is located on approximately 1,160 acres in a largely rural area along Passage Road (Route 648), Marlboro Road (Route 631), Springdale Road (Route 649), Middle Road (Route 628), and west of the CSX rail corridor and partially within the Stephens City town limits. About 705 acres of the first phase are being used to install rows of ground-mounted solar panels, other necessary equipment for facility operations, a transmission substation, access paths, fencing and landscaping.

According to County Planner Tyler Klein, Torch only recently received its state permitting approval for the first phase. The company is working on a site plan for county review/approval either late this year or early next year.

Sam Gulland, a Torch representative, said Wednesday night that the company anticipates starting construction of first phase in the spring.

If the supervisors approve a permit for the second phase, the Bartonsville facility’s total acreage would expand from 1,160 to 1,797 acres.

Torch largely chose the project’s location because it is near an existing First Energy 138 kilovolt transmission line, where the solar energy will be delivered. According to Torch, the solar arrays will leave space for continued agricultural and orchard cultivation. The mixed use would allow the owners of the land to diversify their income while continuing to farm. Additionally, the second phase would provide clean energy matching the electricity consumption of approximately 10,000 homes in Virginia.

Diane Kearns, president of Fruit Hill Orchard, urged the commission to approve the CUP, saying the solar facility could be an essential revenue stream for her family. She said the apple industry has declined recently in terms of profitability. Kearns said she and her family want to stay in agriculture, but they need additional revenue sources. She noted that leasing portions of her family’s land for solar use was a solution that made sense, as it will preserve the land for future generations.

“The revenue that comes off of this will help us operate orchards and other areas while we try to figure out what the next real profit center is,” Kearns said. “We’re working on it but we’re not completely there yet, and this will help.”

But several neighboring property owners said they dislike being surrounded by solar panels and consider them an eyesore. They also said solar facilities should not be considered a rural land use.

“I feel like we’ve been abandoned,” said Charles Heath, who lives on Brackenfern Lane in Stephens City. “I feel like the county has let us down.”

Heath said he and other neighbors had resigned themselves to being unable to fight the project. He added that he didn’t understand why the county was voting on the project’s second phase when they haven’t seen the impact of the first phase.

“So when they complete this project, we will have solar panels on our backyard 100 feet from our property line,” Heath said. “We’ll get to see those panels for the rest of our life for as far as you can see, to the left and to the right.”

Julie Gordon, a Brackenfern Lane resident, said people are trying to sell their houses in that area of the county because of the solar facility.

“We really feel betrayed by the county,” Gordon said.

Commissioner Roger Thomas said he was “very concerned” about the project, as the county has no track record with a solar facility of this scale. He said approving the second phase would increase the number of solar panels for the Bartonsville facility by 50%.

While he favors preserving family farms, Thomas said he’s skeptical that 30 years from now, when the solar panels are no longer in use, that future generations will farm the land.

The matter will go before the Board of Supervisors on Nov. 10.

Also at the meeting, the commission recommended the county deny a permit for a 90-foot telecommunications tower at 101 Greenway Court. Winchester Wireless already constructed the tower for wireless internet communication on the property last year, but property owner David Hermens failed to obtain a CUP. He sought the application due to a zoning violation.

Commissioner Gary Oates said he was puzzled why Winchester Wireless built the tower without seeking the county’s approval first. Usually, he said a company would provide studies showing the need for cellular service.

While the commission appreciated Hermens trying to correct the issue, other commissioners expressed concern that Winchester Wireless was trying to “cut corners” and bypass the county review process.

Jewell made a motion to deny the application, believing there have been too many instances in which people have tried to get towers retroactively approved after construction.

The matter will go before the supervisors on Nov. 10.

— Contact Josh Janney at jjanney@winchesterstar.com

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