With large solar projects on horizon, what is the value of historic views?

This article was published August 21, 2018 by the Culpeper Star Exponent and written by Allison Brophy Champion.

A recent study by the Washington, D.C.-based American Battlefield Trust provided its analysis of the impact large solar farms would have on some of this area’s most hallowed ground.

The 14-page document answered some key questions: How far could Confederate and Union troops see from the half-dozen signal stations around Culpeper County during the Civil War, what did the views look like and what is the modern-day value of preserving such elevated vistas near the same areas proposed for two large solar farm projects?

American Battlefield Trust – an umbrella organization for the Civil War Trust – recently-commissioned, “A War-Time Viewshed Study of Culpeper County,” written by Glenn Stach, a preservation landscape architect and planner based in North Carolina.

A “viewshed” denotes the geographical area visible from a particular location, in this case, what was in view from six Civil War era observation points, or signal stations. The study used 3D technology to show on maps the detectable lands looking five or 20 miles out from signal stations including at Mount Pony, Fleetwood Hill and Hansbrough’s Ridge.

The Trust owns land at the latter two sites as part of the Brandy Station Battlefield, site of the massive 1863 cavalry clash. Both places would be included in a Trust-led proposal for a Battlefield State Park currently under consideration at the state level. If the proposed Culpeper County solar projects are constructed, its panels would be viewable from all three Civil War era signal stations, according to Stach.

“View sheds continually rank within the state as very significant to visitors,” he said. “Battlefield preservation and the experience of a battlefield today are best protected by the protection of agricultural lands.”

He continued, “Helping farmers continue to farm helps battlefield preservation and the experience of heritage tourism.”

During the War Between the States, Culpeper County experienced eight military campaigns, six battles and many hundreds of acres of military encampments, posts and pickets.

Lesser known are the observation points providing war-time communication and intelligence, located atop some of Culpeper’s most visible and “iconic” hills and mountains, according to the Viewshed Study.

Today’s views from the six posts, stretching across most of Culpeper County, are “a contributing and character-defining feature of the historic landscape” worthy of continued stewardship and conservation, the study stated.

“This wide-ranging network served two important military purposes – communication and intelligence,” said Craig Swain, a historian cited in the study.

The importance of the observation points was because of how they were laid out. To the north was a string of stations co-located near headquarters, to the south were stations allowing observation of the Confederate lines across the Rapidan River, and a station on Pony Mountain operated as a central ‘hub’ to relay messages, according to Swain.

Stach admitted it’s impossible to protect 20 miles of view shed.

“A contemporary viewshed policy says five miles is what you should manage, the mitigation of resources within that viewshed is most important,” he said.

The two proposed solar projects both are within that five-mile area. The panels will stretch up to maximum 15-feet during peak times, according to the extensive application submitted earlier this year by Texas-based Greenwood Solar seeking to build a utility scale project on 1,000 acres south of Stevensburg.

A separate project by Virginia Solar seeks to build on 172 acres between Stevensburg and Brandy Station with both following the existing Dominion Power transmission line.

Attorney John Foote, representing Greenwood Solar, said the project is fully consistent with the county’s solar guidance, which emphasize historic resource protection.

“The project will be entirely out of view from the county’s several ‘core battlefields.’ The project is located south of Route 3 and is not visible from the most sensitive Civil War sites located north of the road,” Foote said.

He said the solar panels would “have a very low profile” of less than 12-feet and would follow existing land contours. Greenwood Solar did not respond to a question about how many total solar panels the project would comprise, but said its entire perimeter would have rows of planted trees and existing native timbers remaining in place.

“In fact, the solar panels will be far less visible than many others uses in the general area,” Foote said. “This proposed project is not asking for, nor does it need, any taxpayer-supported county services. In addition, it will generate emission-free energy and create additional tax revenue for the county.”

Half-dozen landowners of farmland near Stevensburg, including Culpeper County Board Chairman Bill Chase, have entered into contracts with Greenwood Solar to build the project. According to a lengthy application submitted by the company in March, the project will generate an estimated $1.2 million in annual lease payments to the landowners over the project’s anticipated 40-year life.

The Greenwood project will be located along a 2-mile corridor running parallel to the transmission line, overlapping “slightly” with the eastern edge of Blackjack Road, within the battlefield study area.

“The project will be consistent with and only modestly affect the scenic quality of the rural landscape in which it will be located,” the application stated.

A county ordinance states that a solar farms must be constructed no less than a 50-feet from adjacent property lines and 150-feet from neighboring homes.

While the American Battlefield Trust contends it is not directly opposed to any particular solar project, its recent study encourages local leaders to take “a second look” at potential impacts to “cultural landscapes observable from places with names like Mount Pony, Hansbrough’s Ridge, Stony Mountain and Fleetwood Hill.”

“The purpose of the Viewshed Study is to assist the county by providing valuable information which county officials can easily draw on to direct utility-scale development in a context-sensitive, preservation-friendly fashion that comports with the historic character of Culpeper County,” said American Battlefield Trust spokesman Mark Coombs.

He said Culpeper County’s recently-developed utility scale solar policy recommends no such development on core battlefield lands as identified by Virginia Department of Historic Resources.

The county’s policy also states that “Battlefield Study Areas” around core lands would be considered “sensitive,” further noting as desirable the screening of views from historically significant properties.

“Visual impact on property designated as historic by its inclusion in the Comprehensive Plan … shall be minimized to the greatest extent possible,” the county’s policy reads.

Meanwhile, the Culpeper County Comprehensive Plan recommends “mitigation measures” for all new development with “Areas of Historic Interest” identified in the plan, including at Hansbrough Ridge, Mount Pony and Fleetwood Hill.

For the Greenwood Solar project, the applicant has included perimeter landscaping as “a central feature” to include double rows of trees in areas adjacent to existing homes.

Culpeper County is at the vanguard of largescale solar in Virginia, Coombs said, adding that the Viewshed Study is intended to apply to all types of future development in the same areas.

“What is less understood is this concept of wartime viewsheds and their importance within a historic framework to the county,” he said. “If Culpeper is going to consider a given application for a utility scale solar project, we hope this could assist the county to consider that and the visitor experience.”

Coombs continued if multiple solar farmers were allowed in a particular area vista views would be obstructed.

The study is not an attempt by the Trust to thwart solar, Coombs stressed.

Recently, solar farm developments hit a snag when the Culpeper County planning commission recommended denial of the Virginia Solar application on Glen Ella Road sating the proposed solar farm was out of character with the area.

The Culpeper County Board of Supervisors will take up the issue at it Sept. 4 meeting, which will include a public hearing.

Historian Stach is slated to give a presentation on the study at the Sept. 12 Culpeper County Planning Commission meeting.

He called the value of a historic view intangible, priceless. “Battlefields, viewsheds all play into that American story, that cultural identity, that authentic experience,” he said.

Coombs called them “outdoor classrooms” one can read about in books or study in school.

“But until you’re standing on place like Hansbrough’s Ridge and you’re able to see the landscape for yourself and put yourself in the shoes of the soldiers who were there, that’s a kind of understanding you can only achieve on site looking at those viewsheds,” he said.

The American Battlefield Trust estimated Virginia earns $6.5 billion annually in heritage tourism.