Some Takeaways From sPower Special Use Permit Public Hearing
This post seeks to highlight a few broad observations and is not intended to touch on each point of contention raised by community members or to claim whether the sPower proposal is good or bad. Free Lance-Star writer Scott Shenk covers most of these points of contention here.
On February 26th, the Planning Department presented the three sPower Special Use Permit (SUP) applications to the Board of Supervisors. The Board will discuss these applications at their March 12th meeting and have an April 30th deadline to vote. The public comment period is closed, but citizens are still able to email or call Board members to voice their opinions. Board members contact information can be found here.
At the February 26th meeting, Board members were mostly silent and asked only a few questions, but Supervisor McLaughlin requested that the Planning Department consolidate all the citizens’ concerns, have sPower’s rebuttal, and have their third-party consultant adjudicate any conflicts.
My unofficial count had 77 speakers opposed and 25 in favor of the sPower applications (some individuals spoke during each public hearing, so the numbers don’t necessarily reflect 102 individuals).
Here are a few broad observations from the public hearing:
Do We Trust County Staff?
While not said openly to my knowledge, it seems those opposed to the sPower project have little faith in County staff to evaluate the proposal’s merits. According to sPower’s attorney, county staff authored 174 conditions with the sole purpose of protecting Spotsylvania. The County’s professionals in Planning, Public Utilities, Fire, Rescue, Emergency Management, and Zoning and Code Enforcement have publicly given the impression that the conditions in place are satisfactory to protect the community. These professionals are likely the closest to objective individuals in this process and their future livelihoods hinge on taking defensible positions. This brings me to the point of this section. If this project is as flawed as those opposed to it claim, why aren’t their public calls for the replacement of the professionals that are recommending its approval?
Spower SUP Process Has Largely Been A Success
It’s possible the County’s process for reviewing SUP and Re-zoning applications could be improved. However, the manner in which sPower has operated within the public hearings process is largely consistent with applications over the last several years. Applicants typically engage in cost sharing endeavors with the County when upgrades are mutually beneficial to applicants and the County – as in the water line extension. Additionally, applicants typically adjust their original proposals multiple times due to citizens or elected officials concerns. We can debate whether that is right or not, but to hold sPower to a higher standard of review than other developers would not be impartial and would reflect poorly on the County.
Whose Opinion Really Matters?
Throughout this application process, some residents have advanced an interesting and potentially cancerous idea – that only those residents directly affected by a project really matter. Sure, residents closest to a project are going to be better positioned to identify project shortcomings and issues. Their engagement in the process is important and necessary for the long-term well-being of the County. As shown by Livingston residents’ ability to advocate for positive alterations on multiple fronts to the s-Power proposal. However, if we were to allow this tribalistic view to become the norm it likely would negatively affect the County. It would also lead one to consider, why would a Supervisor be permitted to weigh in on a topic outside of their district or vote on it for that matter.
If we are to set the standard for Virginia localities we must make decisions objectivity and be responsive to the evolving facts. While a resident directly impacted can offer invaluable contributions to identify and mitigate concerns of a project, that resident is most of the time going to have difficulty separating whether a project is good for the entire County. This is where expanding the number of voices that matter makes our County whole. Every concerned and informed opinion matters no matter where you live.
Whether the Supervisors conclude that sPower’s proposal is a good or bad project, they must base that decision on the projects merits and not attempt to use the number of citizens for or against a project as an adequate justification for their vote.
Recent Mailers in Support and Against the sPower Project
Can sPower’s Proposal be Monitored and Enforced Adequately by County Staff?
To me this is an important question and it’s one that has received little attention in the public conversation. Our County staff is comprised of dedicated professionals, but a sizable task after the construction phase is the enforcement of the SUP conditions. Do we have the resources currently to do that? If problems arise, will the County need to hire additional staff to enforce the SUP conditions? Who pays for this additional staff? The County? sPower?
The County Planning Department authored conditions to protect Spotsylvania which addressed most concerns from County residents. But how we enforce that is something that concerns me. You can make conditions that address each concern, but if you lack the personnel to enforce it, does it really matter?
This post is not intended to argue the merits of the project. Those who favor and oppose the sPower project have added value to this process. Both sides have also muddied the waters and introduced information that is irrelevant, incomparable, or cannot be substantiated, which makes it more difficult for the average resident to separate fact from fiction. This includes the applicant as well. Nonetheless, the people have spoken and it’s now up to our elected officials to make sense of it all.
Click here to review sPower’s Special Use Permit Applications.
Click here to review Scott Shenk’s Free Lance Star article from the public hearing.