Commissioners approve solar farm amendments
By Charles Curcio
At Monday’s meeting of the Stanly County Board of Commissioners, the board wrapped up a public hearing and made two decisions which open the way for constructions of solar farms.
The board unanimously approved text amendments to ordinance ZA 18-04, one of which changed the requirements of a buffer zone between residences and a solar farm. The buffer zone must be between 25 and 50 feet while doubling the amount of vegetation in that zone for the perimeter of a farm and the increased buffer must extend to at least 300 feet in length.
According to minutes of the Planning and Zoning Board meeting, that board recommended to the commissioners removing language requiring the buffer on adjacent lots only.
A public hearing had no comments made, so after a motion by Commissioner Scott Efird, which was seconded by Commissioner Bill Lawhon, the amendments were passed unanimously.
The other issue regarding solar farms was the establishment of a Solar Electric Power Generating System Overlay District for six plots of land located near Old Aquadale Road.
A public hearing on the overlay district was carried over from the board’s regularly-scheduled meeting in May. At that meeting, Edward Gann, whose property on 34272 Mabry Road is on the western side of the proposed solar farm, expressed his dissent for the project.
Gann appeared before the board again Monday night to express his concerns to the board. He said he and his wife had heard encouraging words from the community regarding informing people on what he said were “the complex unknowns and impacts of a 400-acre solar farm installation in our local community area.”
Asserting his neighbors have expressed concerns about the solar farm’s potential impact on wildlife and farm land values, he said those people said they “must exercise a measure of reserve in regards to public communications.” Gann said other neighbors of his had been approached by Solterra and another solar group, saying they were worried about decommissioning of a solar farm.
Gann used the example of the town of Spencer, in Rowan County, which enacted a 60-day moratorium on new solar energy sites, saying the town did this to prevent a clustering of farms near family residences. He stated the Spencer plans included a timeline for decommissioning plans as well as a surety performance bond to the town land management department.
Reiterating his recommendations to the commissioners, Gann said a six-month moratorium on new farms should be enacted, along with denial of the request by Solterra for the overlay disrtrict.
“None of you have ever heard me attack solar power in the times I have talked to you…what’s imporant here is as a county we get ahead of this and not let this drive us,” Gann said. “I can’t see how some moratorium period will impact them.”
Gann noted Solterra had not heard yet from Duke Energy regarding the contract for the power.
Roger Poplin, one of the owners of the six tracts of land for the proposed solar farm, spoke at the meeting. He said he grew up in Stanly and managed the farm, having rented it out to other farmers.
“I feel like (the project) is a very good thing not only for our family but probably, as I can tell, for Stanly from a property tax standpoint,” Poplin said.
Poplin was asked by Lawhon how many farmers were farming the land, to which Poplin responded one. Of the 142 acres, only about 80 were being farmed, Poplin said, adding the rest of the land was “unproductive property.”
Dennis Richter, from Solterra, again spoke in the public comment section to answer questions on the solar farm project.
He said a solar farm is a business and Solterra “is coming to Stanly County wanting to locate a farm to sell kilowatt hours to Duke Energy.”
The farm represents an investment of $70-80 million.
“We have a viable business,” he said. “We believe it’s a good land use.”
Richter said the farm will not have an increased demand on county services and “will be here for a long time.”
A few jobs will be permanent, but most of the jobs created with the farm will take place in the nine-month construction process, in which time those people will be staying at local hotels and eating at local restaurants.
“There is a decent economic impact,” Richter said.
Commissioner Matthew Swain asked if Solterra partners with farmers for grazing, noting an example in Candor in Montgomery County.
Richter said some of the farms do have sheep on them, to keep the grass down, and are the only animal which can be used because they will not eat the wiring.
“To the extent a local farmer could do that, they could but it’s involved with a lot of safety issues. Most likely, maintenance on the grass, which happens 3-4 times a year, would be hired out locally,” Richter said.
Vice Chairman Gene McIntyre asked about the status of Solterra’s contract with Duke Energy.
“We can’t just apply to Duke any longer and get a purchase agreement… we don’t know if we put these things together if it will get an award for power purchase agreement. They won’t give us one because the process hasn’t started,” Richter said.
The process goes through the end of the year along with three other proposals.
When asked what happens if Solterra does not get the contract, Richter said the farm would not get built, but he added two other possibilities exist for a power contract. The first is with a Green Source Rider Program, which could mean the power could be sold to a company such as Apple or any other corporation in which the farms do not have to be on the business’ campus.
The other choice would be the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act, or PURPA, a federal act to promote domestic energy use and renewable energy. A drawback to PURPA is getting financing for a five-year plan which Richter said could be hard.
“We may do all three of these simultaneously,” Richter said.
After closing the public meeting, McIntyre spoke about his concerns with the size of the project.
“Four hundred acres worth…I do think it would be good for the county, the revenue,” he said.
“We don’t want a county full of 400-acre solar farms, I don’t think,” McIntyre said, adding if farms are not being used, he didn’t want to hold farmers back in using them either.
Commissioner Ashley Morgan moved to approve the outlay district, and it was seconded by McIntyre, and passed.
In other actions, the board:
• had a public meeting regarding the county’s proposed 2018-19 budget, but no one spoke at the hearing.
• approved a resolution authorizing the exchange of property to expand the Air National Guard’s presence at the Stanly County Airport.
The county exchanged a 41.503-acre tract of vacant land on Airport Road for a 28.25-acre plot owned by J.T. Russell and Sons, Inc.
A public hearing was conducted, but no one spoke at the hearing.
Efird made the motion and it was seconded by Commissioner Jann Lowder.
Lawhon spoke before the unanimous vote, saying he understood the benefit of exchanging a larger piece for a smaller one, “but for the future use of Stanly County Airport, this is a good swap.”
Commission Chairman Joseph Burleson echoed Lawson’s comments, saying “the benefits of this swap will far exceed any negatives for the county.”
• approved Stanly County’s Aging Care Plan for the fiscal year 2019 presented by Senior Services Director Becky Weemhoff.
Stanly will receive $416,742 in funds from the Home and Community Care Block Grant for six aging programs in the county at the Senior Center. Those programs include: Home Services Level I (Home Management) and Level II (Personal Care), congregate nutrition, home-delivered meals, transportation and information/assistance.
“This is a slight increase from last year and is an increase over the past several years,” Weemhoff said. “We are excited about it.”
• approved two requests for additional funds from Donna Davis, director of the Utilities Department.
One was for an additional $45,897 to replace computer systems at the Deese Street sewer pump station system in Richfield, which has not seen any overhauls in the past 16 years, according to Davis.
The cost to replace the entire pump might range from $500,000 to $750,000.
Currently, the Utilities Department has installations of new monitoring and computer systems in progress at all of the water and sewer pump stations, but Deese Street needed more work on it.
The current vendor, Lord and Company, Inc. of Fort Mill, South Carolina, was asked to review the pump station. The company determined while still under contract, those changes could be made for the additional funds for which Davis asked.
When asked by Lawhon if a company in Stanly could make the changes, Davis said none could.
In the other request, an additional $24,000 was allocated to the 649 Hook Up Grant to allow the final nine homes of low- and moderate-income families water and sewer connections.
• approved the signees for a mandatory memorandum of understanding for Social Services to allow the state to monitor the performance of the local Department of Social Services.
• approved several new members to local boards.
The Board of Commissioners voted to reappoint Joe Brooks and appoint Georgia Harvey to serve on the Stanly Community College Board of Trustees.
Brooks has been an active trustee since 2014, according to a letter to the board from SCC Board of Trustees president retired Maj. Gen. Robert Stonestreet.
Stonestreet also had recommended the reinstatement of Nadine Bowers to the trustees, but Lawhon nominated two other people, Georgia Harvey and Gerald Efird. Harvey works with Stanly County Schools as the director of high schools.
To the Economic Development Board, the commissioners voted 6-1 to appoint SCS superintendent Jeff James. The lone dissenting vote was Lawhon, who had nominated Elizabeth Robinson for consideration for the position.
The commissioners also nominated Monica Johnson for a two-year term as the private sector representative for the Centralina Workforce Development Board (CWDB).
• approved a resolution supporting the state’s Department of Transporation’s Project Prioritization for the widening of U.S. Highway 52 from Dennis Road to the existing four-lane road.
• approved a resolution for a special advisory referendum for a one-fourth-cent sale tax increase for the Nov. 6 general election ballot.
The resolution was passed with the provision that all of the commissioners would personally sign the resolution showing their support for it.
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