courthouse

By approving the special exception permit for the Strata Solar project, Richmond County Board of Supervisors has “abandoned its responsibility” and is instead focused solely on a speculative tax benefit that amounts to less than 1% of the county budget, say legal documents filed on Friday.

Allowing Strata Solar to proceed not only violates state and county regulations, but will involve bulldozing historically significant sites and endangering numerous waterways. Meanwhile, the tax benefit the board  seeks is unlikely to materialize because of the plethora of potential problems that will surround this project, the lawsuit also claims.

Residents file lawsuit

Carol Lowery and her daughter Stephanie Lowery Ebel, residents and owners of property adjacent to the Strata Solar project site, filed a lawsuit against the Richmond County Board of Supervisors in 2020 that made a range of claims regarding the Strata Solar project.

On Friday, the plaintiffs filed an amended petition with a narrower focus in Richmond County’s Circuit Court. In it, the plaintiffs argue that the Strata Solar project site has historical significance to First Nations and is a highly sensitive coastal environment, exactly the opposite of the type of area Dominion Energy recommends for solar mega-sites.

Clearing Strata Solar’s project site will require extensive grubbing and burning, the lawsuit claims. The area contains steep slopes and highly erodible cutover timber land held together only by root balls, which is a direct contravention of Dominion’s criteria that land should not exceed 8% slope and should require only minimal grading.

This project site falls within the conservation areas in Richmond County’s comprehensive plan and the Chesapeake Bay’s resource protection areas and wetlands. It’s considered the “spine of the Northern Neck.”

Strata Solar presents the risk of construction run off, toxic PFAS chemicals and cadmium telluride permanently destroying Farnham Creek, Laton Swamp, Bookers Mill Stream and Totuskey Creek, all of which flow into the Rappahannock River. The northern portion of the project will send toxins and chemicals into the Bush Mill Stream, which flows into the Wicomico River, the plaintiffs’ petition alleges.

Violation of state and county regulations

Richmond County’s comprehensive plan adopted Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act and requires Richmond County to comply with the requirements of that state act, the plaintiffs argue.

The Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act requires local government not only to designate preservation areas but also to set protective requirements and civil penalties for violations. When Richmond County supervisors granted the special exemption permit for Strata Solar they were aware that doing so meant they couldn’t comply with the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act, the petition alleges.

Further, the the board violated terms of its zoning ordinance for issuing special exception permits. For example, Richmond County’s criteria says a proposed use isn’t supposed to result in the destruction, loss or damage of any significant ecological, scenic or historic feature. The board’s decision also violates the zoning ordinance because the project is not in harmony with the comprehensive plan’s stance on the destruction of waterways.

By issuing the special exception permit, the board is violating its own comprehensive plan, erosion ordinance and zoning ordinance. Not to mention Strata Solar will have numerous adverse impacts on neighboring property owners, including creating disturbances and unsafe conditions as well as devaluing their property and reducing its marketability, the lawsuit claims.

Precedent for disaster

The plaintiff points to the board’s approval of the Fones Cliff Development, a 977-acre mega-project for which Richmond County had to issue a stop-work order after work on approximately 13.5 acres created unmanageable erosion control problems endangering the Rappahannock River. That project was abandoned.

Strata Solar’s mega-site is “now known locally as Fones 2.0,” the court document claimed.

“The board and its planning commission are aware of the history of DEQ violations by Strata Solar and its affiliated entity but have chose to ignore these facts.” They’re aware Strata Solar “poses serious health and welfare threats to Richmond County and its citizens yet “wholly ignored such threats.”

“The board has not held a proper public discussion concerning the potential cost to be borne by county taxpayers of the violations of the state and county law that will result from Strata Solar’s installation…,” the lawsuit states, adding that  Richmond County’s supervisors“…have instead hidden and suppressed this important and relevant information and decided it best to lie about the facts.”

Therefore, the plaintiffs are asking the court to find that the board doesn’t have the power to approve this special exception permit, to deem its decision void, and to deem the board’s action unlawful, unreasonable as well as arbitrary and capricious.