Note: A shorter version of this editorial was slated to be published in a column in the Spirit of Jefferson newspaper, but the Editor decided not to publish it after talking with Stolipher.
Recently, there has been an impasse at the Jefferson County Commission. Commissioners Krouse and Jackson have refused to attend the regularly scheduled Jefferson County Commission meetings held after the September 7th meeting.
What is behind this impasse?
The short answer is; conflicts of interest and corruption.
This controversy continues as the new Blake solar farm project is being built outside Charles Town, and at least one other solar farm in Jefferson County, the Wild Hill solar project near Kabletown has received an extension of its conditional use permit.
Jefferson County Commissioner Steve Stolipher, who owns farmland, says that he did not receive any remuneration for his efforts to increase the prevalence of solar farms throughout West Virginia, as evidenced by his lobbying during the 2022 Legislative Session for legislation (not passed) that would allow solar farms as a matter of right in all West Virginia counties. Solar farms would still have to get required permits and meet all regulations under the proposed legislation he advocated, Stolipher points out. He also said that he will not benefit personally through owning properties that might be leased or sold to solar farm developers.
Stolipher, a farmer, a commercial real estate broker and an auctioneer, is from a family of longtime farmers in Jefferson County. The Stolipher family owns over 600 acres in Jefferson County, according to public records. (http://documents.jeffersoncountywv.org/ Search for “Stolipher”).
Stolipher is a big proponent of property rights, stating that an owner can do as they see fit with their property. A member of the Jefferson County Planning Commission since 2012, and the county commission’s current voting member on the planning commission, he recently said he does not believe in land zoning restrictions. Stolipher is also a voting member of the Jefferson County Republican Executive Committee and the Jefferson County Development Authority (JCDA).
Although all Commissioners sit on commissions, they are not all voting members of those commissions. The Planning Commission has approved the four solar projects that were either being built (Blake) or in the works when the solar text amendment was rescinded. Although Stolipher generally recuses himself when votes are taken, the fact that he won’t reveal the exact nature of his conflicts of interest is a serious ethical problem. In my conversation with Stolipher, he said he did not know if his brothers would financially benefit from the development of solar farms in Jefferson County. In yet another assault on transparency, the Jefferson County Planning Commission, on October 10th, voted to eliminate public notice and comments for waiver applications. This is completely unacceptable, and a step away from, not toward, transparency.
Stolipher indicated to me that it is more profitable for farmers to have their land used for solar farms than to grow corn on it. He said that farmers make about $200-per-acre profit growing corn. In comparison, landowners of the proposed Wild Hill solar farm project would make $475 per acre per year over a 39-year lease. This figure is taken by dividing the revenue stated in the article in the Nov. 1 Spirit and dividing it by the number of years and the number of acres.
When I pointed out about environmental concerns, including runoff into and sedimentation of the Shenandoah River, apparently mostly due to the Blake solar project under construction, he took objection to that assessment. Later in our conversation, he indicated that runoff should not occur for any project, not just from solar farms.
Another large point of contention is that, very likely, Stolipher is moving to have a replacement candidate for Clarrie Ath, who resigned as Commissioner put on the council to vote in favor of his agenda. According to Commissioner Krouse, the Republican Executive Committee did not follow established procedures to conduct an on the record and transparent vote for the slate of three candidates that they are presenting. As such, that slate is not valid. A transparent selection process is needed. Furthermore, one of the propose candidates, Keith Lowry, would have an inherent conflict of interest, as the organization that he is executive director of, Jefferson Ministries, has received up to $80,000 of yearly funding from Jefferson County.
Addressing part of the reason for an ongoing dispute among county commissioners, Stolipher said that the reason he did not put Commissioner Jennifer Krouse’s recent solar farm discussion request on the commission’s meeting agenda was because it was submitted late. However, Krouse explained that the item was initially approved but later remove when Stolipher saw exactly what the agenda item was.
When talking about property rights the property rights of all of those affected by solar farm projects have to be considered. Decisions also have to be made transparently, and public discussion and approval is a must. As a real estate broker, Stolipher should reveal if he has received or will receive any commissions from the sale of any of the properties sold to solar farm developers.
This transparency was lacking during the development stage of the Rockwool insulation plant, and we should not repeat that mistake regarding solar farms. Citizen input should be valued, not dismissed
What about the property rights of homeowners in the new King’s Crossing subdivision directly adjacent to the Blake solar project? What about the property rights of those who own riverside lots who are effected by runoff and sedimentation of the Shenandoah River? A complaint regarding this runoff was submitted to the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection by the Jefferson County foundation on Sept. 26.
We should also be very wary of the proposed takeover of siting decisions for solar farms by the state government. A similar situation is now playing out in Michigan, where the governor and legislature are moving toward passing legislation that would strip the ability of local communities to decide if they want such projects by placing them on the ballot for local referendums.
In fact, West Virginia needs legislation so local communities can have more say, not less, in solar or other industrial development. It is a good idea to allow local communities to request ballot measures to approve or disapprove solar or wind farm projects. That ability for local communities to have more development control, should be added to state law during the upcoming legislative session.
A better strategy regarding finding appropriate sites for solar farms is to locate them on degraded lands or ‘brownfields’.
According to Kameli and Shen of the Virginia Coastal Policy Center in “Developing Solar Energy in Rural Virginia: An Analysis of Legal, Environmental, and Policy Issues” (2022),
To avoid disturbing prime forested and agricultural lands, solar developers and localities should consider siting new solar projects on degraded lands or ‘brownfields’ such as former industrial sites, landfills, or mined areas, provided appropriate environmental controls are in place to mitigate adverse effects. Additionally, distributed solar is another option that could be explored more in Virginia to ease the pressure to develop large solar facilities in rural communities
The Millville quarry site, where a solar farm is envisioned is an example of an area where it makes sense to install a solar farm.
What long term economic benefit does a solar farm provide, except to those leasing or selling the land that the solar farm is situated on, which is only a handful of people? Land owners’ interests must be balanced against the interests of the whole community. Some of the interests of the whole community are; concerns about the environmental damage that solar farms routinely cause, the decline in property values of nearby properties, and the effect on tourism. Instead of a bucolic rural area, widespread solar farms would turn Jefferson County into an industrial area, and tourism is a major economic engine in Jefferson County.
It is also important to maintain farmland for food production. This is especially true in an unstable world, where food shortages have become a reality.