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Mecklenburg planners send solar recommendations to supes for action

SoVaNow.com / October 04, 2017


After sometimes heated debate, pro and con, on imposing restrictions on solar energy development in Mecklenburg County, members of the Planning Commission on Thursday backed a set of zoning and planning standards for industrial-scale solar facilities to send to the Mecklenburg County Board of Supervisors for final approval.

The planners’ recommendation sets the stage for the Board of Supervisors to decide what regulations should apply to solar farms when board members meet next Tuesday.

The planners’ support for the new rules came after a Thursday night meeting in which advocates and skeptics of large-scale solar energy production aired mostly familiar arguments on the pluses and minuses of an envisioned boom of solar arrays near Chase City. The Planning Commission faced the question of how to set standards for issuing special exception permits when the county’s comprehensive plan is silent on whether the sprawling solar panel fields are consistent with local development objectives.

With one solar facility, the 330-acre Bluestone Solar Farm on Spanish Grove Road near Chase City, already backed by a county permit, and a second project — the 913-acre 80 megawatt “Grasshopper” solar farm — seeking a permit to go up at the intersection of Highways 47 and 49 near Chase City, county officials expressed the need to slow down the process to prevent unbridled conversion of agricultural land into solar farms.

These concerns prompted the county to hire attorney Greg Haley and land use planner Darren Coffey to address the issue of suitability of solar farms in Mecklenburg County and to help the county develop zoning and planning standards for solar power facilities.

If approved by the Board of Supervisors, the County 2035 Comprehensive Plan would include provisions that Coffey said would help mitigate the impact of utility-scale solar facilities on land use patterns. Under the recommended standards, sola energy farms:

» Should, as much as possible, be located on brownfields or near existing industrial uses, but not within growth boundaries.

» Should be located adjacent to or in close proximity to existing electric transmission lines

» Avoid or minimize impact to prime farmland or farmlands of stateside importance as defined by the USDA.

» Should be located outside of any identified growth boundary and not within one mile of a town boundary.

» Should be located outside of the viewshed of any scenic, cultural or recreational resource.

» Be located in areas with which all construction, material storage, grading and related activities should be less than 500 acres.

» Should not be located within two miles of another approved or constructed utility-scale solar facility.

Robert Hendrick, county zoning administrator, emphasized that any provisions included in the comprehensive plan are advisory only, and would not stop an entity from seeking a special exception permit to erect a solar farm. The provisions that will most likely limit solar farm activity are those recommended for inclusion in the county’s zoning ordinance, Article 20.

Under the proposed zoning ordinance, solar facilities will be permitted in agricultural, low density agricultural, business or industrial districts, either by permit or by right. As part of the application process for medium-scale or utility-scale solar farms, there will have to be, among other requirements:

» a pre-application meeting with the zoning administrator to discuss the location, scale and nature of the farm,

» a comprehensive plan review by the planning commission, and

» a public meeting to give the community an opportunity to hear from the applicant and ask questions regarding the proposed project.

The minimum development standards for the utility-scale facilities call for a site of at least two acres, but not more than 500 acres, and located at least one mile from nearest town boundary. The minimum setback from any property line for the equipment is 150 feet and the site must be surrounded by fencing and a 100-foot wide buffer landscaped with plant materials consisting of evergreen and deciduous mix.

Most of the people who spoke at Thursday hearing were opposed to the zoning ordinances, although for different reasons. Chase City Mayor Eddie Bratton said the one-mile limit from the nearest municipal boundary would prevent a town from expanding beyond its current limits if a solar farm was previously approved nearby. Equally important to Bratton, he said the language would prevent the Grasshopper site from being built.

Not true, replied Hendrick, because these new zoning ordinances do not apply to Grasshopper, which filed its application for a special exception permit ahead of the envisioned changes to the zoning code.

Nathan Hamm from Microsoft expressed the view that the overly limiting language in both the zoning code and comp plan would be a disincentive to socially responsible corporations with a public commitment to green renewable power. L. Potter, a local resident, said the county might as well hang out a “closed for business” sign since companies that prefer to draw their power from green energy sources that will locate in areas more receptive to solar energy.

Others who spoke against the new language included representatives from BayWa, Tommy Nelson, Mac Bailey, owner of the farm where the Grasshopper project wouldd be built, and Frances Hodsoll, CEO of a company looking to install a third project, the Otter Creek Solar Farm, near Chase City.

BayWa is the company hired to install the Grasshopper solar farm.

Monty Hightower handed members of the Planning Commission a petition signed by over 300 Chase City residents who support installing utility scale solar facilities around town limits.

Only three people said they favored the comp plan and zoning code changes: Kathy Keel, who bemoaned the lack of long-term jobs that come with solar farms, Ronnie Newcomb, whose farm abuts the proposed Grasshopper site, and Ann Bullock Arnold who said she feared the effect a solar farm would have on the nearby water table. She told commission members that solar farms increase the amount of cadmium, lead, and chromium dispersed into the ground around the farm.

Supervisors can vote on whether approve these recommendations at their next meeting on Oct. 10.

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