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Orange County solar farm may have met its match: The social media influencers next door

A proposed solar farm in Orange County lost a critical vote before the county’s planning commission after the owners of a historic estate-turned-bed and breakfast and wedding venue rallied their strong social media following and other members of the community to voice their opposition.

The Cashells, who own Mayhurst Inn just south of the town of Orange, argue that Maitland, Florida-based ESA Solar’s 35-acre Orange Road Solar Farm poses a direct threat not only to Mayhurst’s business but to Orange County’s burgeoning tourism industry and its agricultural roots.

That’s in spite of the fact that the solar farm is not part of the Mayhurst estate, sits 1,000 feet away from the historic house, cannot be seen from the highest elevation on the property and is no longer suitable for agricultural purposes.

Nevertheless, the Orange County Planning Commission voted 4-1 on Thursday to recommend the county’s board of supervisors deny ESA’s request for a special use permit for the project. While expressing their support for solar projects in general, commissioners cited the project’s proximity to Mayhurst in their final reasoning.

Mayhurst was constructed by Col. John Willis in 1859. Willis was the great-nephew of Founding Father James Madison, whose Montpelier estate is roughly 7 miles from Mayhurst. Willis was also a generous supporter of the Confederacy, who was so penniless after the Civil War he was forced to sell the property.

“It was purchased by a Northern carpetbagger sent by the Federal government to administer the county,” according to the Cashells’ own history of the estate published on the Mayhurst website.

John and Casey Cashell, originally from Louisville, Kentucky, purchased Mayhurst in February of 2020. Over the past four years, the couple have transformed the 165-year-old Italianate house at the center of the 37-acre property into an attractive destination for holidays and weddings.

The Cashells’ Instagram account, where they document their experiences renovating the property and raising their children there, has amassed more than 150,000 followers.

Speaking before the planning commission Thursday, Casey Cashell compared that figure to the Instagram followings of other nearby historic landmarks, including Montpelier (roughly 13,000 followers) and fellow Founding Father Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello estate (roughly 45,700 followers).

Cashell also pointed out that Orange County’s own Instagram page has barely 2,000 followers.

Casey Cashell said Mayhurst, under her family’s ownership, has put Orange County on the map for “millions.”

“I want you to understand that this dream of ours, here at Mayhurst right in the heart of Orange County, it’s not just ours, it has captured the hearts of millions,” said Casey Cashell at the public hearing. “And that is not an understatement — millions. What we are doing here is far more significant than any of you might understand.”

The Cashells willingly admitted Thursday that they had wielded the power of their fanbase to influence the vote.

Two days before the planning commission hearing, Casey Cashell took to Instagram and called on locals to show up at the hearing in protest and urged followers to email the “Leaders of Orange County” and express their opposition to the solar farm.

“Mayhurst is in danger,” she says in a Tuesday Instagram Reel while sitting in a room at the house and holding an aerial photo of the estate. “There is an industrial solar company wanting to blanket the rolling countryside of this incredible historic estate. … If you could, please write an email to our board of supervisors and let them know that you don’t wish to see a solar field blanketing the hillsides behind Mayhurst, that you want to see this historical estate preserved and kept as a national treasure.”

At the hearing Thursday, Jason Cashell told The Daily Progress that former Mayhurst guests sent more than 100 messages opposing the project to Orange officials.

“The impact of social media through guests drawing tourism here, which Mayhurst, before we bought it, had zero social media,” Jason Cashell told The Daily Progress. “I don’t think social media had a huge role in who showed up to speak tonight, but I do think it has a huge role in who comes and visits and name recognition for Orange.”

Jason Cashell sits on Orange Town Council, which does not have authority over the solar farm project which sits in the county. The distinction between town and county played a role in Jason Cashell’s election in 2022, when opponents argued he had run “under false pretenses,” listing a small upstairs apartment on Main Street in the town of Orange as his primary residence despite evidence, specifically on Instagram, that he and his family reside at Mayhurst in Orange County.

Jason Cashell told the planning commission on Thursday that he and his wife have invested in Mayhurst, and consequently Orange County, believing that Orange officials would do everything in their power to protect historic landmarks and revenue-generating businesses.

“When we moved here four years ago to take over a struggling business, we did it with the understanding that the county said it would protect National Historical Landmarks like Mayhurst,” he said before the commision. “So we came, invested, worked hard and made something special. Now, that agreement is in jeopardy. If you don’t protect Mayhurst, then by default, don’t you, based on precedent, forfeit the rights to protect any other historical landmarks in Orange?”

Wes Shaffer, entitlement manager at ESA, said in a presentation before the planning commission Thursday that the company would do everything in its power to mitigate the project’s impact. He noted that there had already been conversations with Jason Cashell in which ESA had agreed to rent out the eight guest rooms at Mayhurst during the 10 days that construction on the solar farm would be the loudest. He also pointed out that the solar farm has been designed to generate enough electricity for roughly 1,000 households and that Mayhurst, and any other county business or resident, would be able to access that power.

In addition, an ESA viewshed analysis found little to no visual impact from the tallest point on the Mayhurst estate. Unlike the aerial photo Casey Cashell held during her Instagram Reel, in which the proposed site of the solar farm could be clearly seen, a photo taken from the cupola atop the house shows most visitors would not be able to see the solar farm clearly or at all.

Shaffer emphasized that ESA’s plans would make the project practically invisible.

“Over the next 30 years, you will not notice this project,” he told the planning commission.

That comment elicited guffaws from the audience, prompting Shaffer to joke, “It is at this moment, I realize I will not be a good stand-up comedian.”

Following Shaffer, 14 Orange County residents, including the Cashells, voiced their opposition to the project.

“These solar viruses are butt ugly,” said Orange County resident John Murray.

A majority of those in opposition emphasized the negative impact the solar farm would have on the county’s tourism and agriculture sectors.

The tourism industry supports a fraction of the total jobs in Orange County, just 485, according to the Virginia Tourism Corporation. Most of the county’s workforce is employed in the manufacturing and retail sectors, 1,266 and 1,309 people, respectively, according to the county’s 2023 Comprehensive Plan.

ESA has defended itself against criticism that the land should be returned to some sort of agricultural use by pointing out that the property has not been farmed for several years and that the company’s soil studies have shown the land could not even sustain traditional farming.

ESA’s arguments, however, were not enough to sway the votes of planning commissioners Thursday.

In the end, it came down to one figure: 1,000 feet.

Commissioners Teri Vickery and Donald Brooks, who presented the motion to recommend denial, said 1,000 feet was not a sufficient buffer between the proposed solar panels and the historic estate.

“Brooks just couldn’t bring his mind around to the location,” said Brooks, referring to himself in the third person.

The planning commission vote is not the final say on whether a special use permit will be granted for ESA’s Orange Road Solar Farm. The final decision will be determined by the Orange County Board of Supervisors, which has its next regular meeting at 5 p.m. on Feb. 27, when the board is expected to decide on a date to make its final determination.

Source: www.dailyprogress.com

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