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Stanly commissioners approve work by staff on solar farm moratorium

The Stanly County Board of Commissioners approved a motion to ask county staff to work on an official moratorium on the construction of solar farms in the county at Monday’s meeting.

Two cases regarding the establishment of solar farms in Stanly went before the board for public hearings and actions. The first project presented by Bob Remsburg of the Planning and Zoning Board was approved unanimously by the commissioners.

The tracts, a combined 501 acres, are on the northwest side of Reeves Island Road and the southwest side of Glenmore. The lands are owned by Gus Schad and Cletus Hill.  Remsburg requested the board apply a solar electric power generating system overlay district over the three parcels of land. The three plots are zoned RA (residential/agricultural) along with one lot possessing an M1 zone for light manufacturing.

The solar district will total 439.9 acres, along with an additional 254.4 acres in Misenheimer owned by John Pickler.

Projections submitted to the board prior to the meeting stated the farm will contain approximately 342,000 solar panels. The projects would connect to Duke Power lines and will use many of the existing woods as buffers along with the required buffer zone, according to the proposal.

With the proposal, a letter from Pfeiffer president Colleen Perry Keith supporting the proposal was submitted to the commissioners in their packets. In the letter, Keith said “we need to keep up with the increasing energy demand, and solar power is the most environmentally conscious way to do so.” The letter also stated Pfeiffer looks forward “to having Orion as neighbors” while noting the “positive economic impact this project will have on both Misenheimer and Stanly County.”

The planning and zoning board voted 4-2 to approve the request and did not hear anyone in opposition at that board’s public meeting, according to Remsburg. He added the four in favor on the planning board cited the economic benefit to Stanly while the two dissenters’ primary concern was with Duke Energy “not the specifics of this project.”

Before the public hearing, Chairman Joseph Burleson asked if the project extended into Cabarrus or Rowan counties, to which Remsberg said it did not.

Katherine Ross, a lawyer and partner of the lawfirm Parker, Poe, Adams and Bernstein, spoke on behalf of the applicants in the public hearing, along with Peter Moritzburke of Orion.

“We would submit to you the position before you place a solar facility exactly where it belongs,” Ross said. “It will be an economic driver for this community. Solar is a good neighbor.”

During his presentation, Mortizburke said Orion has developed projects since the mid-1990s and developed more than 5,000 megawatts of renewable energy projects worldwide, mostly wind. Under the county ordinance, the proposal is considered a major project.

Ross said the plans also include an increased setback on the Hill property on Glenmore Road to 75 feet, something asked about by Commissioner Scott Efird.

Mortizburke also said collections lines will be underground for the solar farm “to the extent it is possible,” adding the solar modules will not exceed 25 feet in height. The perimeter of the farm will have a 25-foot buffer minimum around residences and a 10-foot landscape bugger in other spots.

Commissioner Bill Lawhon asked about decommission of solar farms, to which Mortizburke replied Orion has not had one yet but the typical life of a facility is more than 20 years and is “closer to 30-35 years.”

Efird asked if Orion had any facilities in the 18-month process of being decommissioned, to which Mortizburke replied the company did not. When asked by Efird why it takes 18 months, Mortizburke said the system can be disconnected and the time period is what is required under the ordinance.

Keith also spoke to the Board of Commissioners, saying she went to the environmental science faculty at Pfeiffer to ask their opinion regarding the potential solar facility. They posed the question in class, to which one student responded by saying “the human population continues to grow and Central NC is one of the fastest growing regions in the US.”

“We are excited to have it there,” Keith said.

Pickler spoke next, saying he and his wife purchased the land between the land owned by Schad and Hill four years ago, which was in bankruptcy. A full-time farmer diversified into cotton, soybeans, wheat and corn, Pickler said he sees the solar project as a type of farming.

“It’s capturing the rays each day. Two things will happen each day, we hope the sun is going to come up…we all will need electricity,” Pickler said. He added the land does not have a lot of topsoil but they took a chance on it.

Property with a former gold mine on it was also a factor in their purchase, he stated, adding “it’s not every day you get a chance to buy a gold mine…it’s part of history and we were intrigued by that.”

After being contacted several times about reopening the gold mine, Pickler said he wanted to be a “good steward of the land” and knew “mining would not be a good neighbor.”

Also speaking in the meeting was Anthony Carter, a retired AT&T employee, who asked the board to ask questions of Orion regarding the environmental impact of a solar farm.

Mortizburke referred to an N.C. State study in regard to answering Carter’s questions, saying first there are no radioactive substances associated with solar power production, unlike nuclear power plants. Sand is the main component of the solar panels.

He went on to say deionized water is used to clean the panels, and local water out of the tap can be used if it is “sufficiently clean.” Water used to clean the panels which went into the ground, Mortizburke added, would not contaminate drinking water, and often is cleaner then rainwater.

Commissioner Gene McIntyre asked how much water is used to clean the panels and how often they get dirty. Moritzburke said the frequency depends on the cleanliness of the panels. When asked about chemicals possibly used, Moritzburke said sometimes a descaling agent can be used but is typically not required.

The Orion representative was also asked about the decommission process and what happens to panels when they become not useful to generate power. Mortizburke said the panels do not physically decompose “and parts fall off,” but the panel itself may lose some capacity of the generation of power over its 30-year life span. Panels can also be reused after 30 years but are not dangerous.

Carter then asked where the panels are purchased and whether they are American-made products, along with getting government tax breaks on solar energy. He also asked whether products will be taken away and destroyed properly.

Mortizburke said the majority of panels are made outside the United States, and for this project a supplier for the panels has not been chosen. Burleson asked where panels from past projects came from, to which Mortizburke said countries such as China, Taiwan and Malaysia.

Ross said per the ordinance and leases, the project has to be decommissioned if there is no power for 18 months or is inoperable. Everything to three feet below the ground would have to be removed by ordinance and leases, she added.

Burleson asked how many homes would the project power, to which Mortizburke said approximately 35,000.

The second request did not pass, which was presented by Remsburg, was regarding a tract of land off Old Aquadale Road, which the board had previously heard information about in terms of changes to the solar power ordinance.

Those requests, from Stanly Solar, L.L.C., were for tracts totaling 191.27 acres owned by Andrew McSwain and Stephen Efird on the southeast side of Old Aquadale Road and the northeast side of Sides Road. The district proposed would have covered 87.19 of those acres. The three parcels of land were in addition to the land previously approved for the solar farm by the board in a previous meeting.

At two different meetings, the planning board heard from planning staff and neighbors. At the October meeting, the planning board approved by a margin of 4-2 to approve the solar district.

Dennis Richter spoke in the public comments on behalf of Solterra Partners who were partnering with the land owners to construct the facility. Richter said the project would generate approximately $125,000 in annual property taxes generating more than 111 million kilowatt hours of electricity and would not require any use of county or city services. He also said the project would have no noise, odor or environmental impacts.

Steve Efird, one of the landowners, said he has lived on that land just short of 64 years. Having visited other solar farms, Efird said they saw farms located from everything from drag strips and golf course to houses.

“We didn’t see any sale signs next to houses,” Efird said regarding homes next to currently existing farms. He added solar farms “would be a good neighbor” and he has the right to make an income with his land as long as he follows the ordinance.”

Dan McSwain also spoke in favor of the proposal, saying because of his failing health being able to keep the farm in the family depends on potential income from the solar farm ordinance to generate income.

“I don’t know where else you’ll find someone to make a $70 million investment in out county,” McSwain said.

Tim Pressley, a resident of 29649 Sides Rond who owns 37.5 acres next to the McSwain property, showed pictures from his house toward that property. He said pine trees planted previously to cover chicken houses will be harvested for the farm, meaning he will see the panels from his house, which would ruin the view.

Pressley asked about the impact on wildlife, considering that area is well hunted during dove, deer and other seasons. He added he was not against solar power, but it needs to be in the right place and be the right type of property. He also said his children may not move back to build on on the family’s land because of the proposed solar farm.

Shawn Huneycutt said numbers he researched showed a 300-acre farm in Pasquotank County costs $2-2.5 million to decommission, which would approximately be the amount of tax money to the county.

Richter addressed the concerns brought up by those against the proposal, saying it’s hard to say Pressley won’t see the farm, but from a distance, he is “a far distance” from the solar farm and it won’t be his “predominant view.” Hunting will not happen on the property but wildlife would be able to move around the area.

Regarding Huneycutt’s concerns on decommission, not a lot of projects have been decommissioned, he said disputing the economics listed. Part of the proposed $70 million includes tax credits but some of those monies are also used to generate capital.

“It will be removed; no one’s going to walk away from it. The solar farm still has value once the contract is over with Duke (Power); it will continue to produce energy for 200 years,” Richter said.

Two questions were asked by resident Myrtle Parker. She asked what road would be used to access the land to build the farm. Richter said it will be an entrance off Sides Road.

Parker asked if local banks were being used, to which Richter responded the amount of the project’s loan, $40-50 million, are through national and international banks which work with tax credits.

McIntyre, who had moved to approve the Misenheimer project, said he heard things in the public comment section which gave him pause to approve a motion on “this particular farm.” Included in those comments were the potential visibility of the farm on Old Aquadale Road.

“In all good conscience, I can’t make a motion to approve it,” McIntyre said, then making a motion to deny the rezoning request. It was seconded by Commissioner Ashley Morgan.

Lawhon said he spent time looking at the package over the weekend, trying to find hazards or deaths caused of solar farms. The only one he said he found had to do with a worker killed by a trencher he was caught underneath. He added farmers know all kinds of risks and the county needs to improve the zoning issue especially with requirements to tear a facility down.

“I don’t want Stanly to be known as the solar capital of North Carolina,” Lawhon said.

Morgan also expressed his hesitations to approve the project, saying the people “should have done their homework better on on the project. You all didn’t do enough research.” He also said the county should find land like the Misenheimer project which is “more suitable” to solar farms.

The motion to deny the request passed 7-0.

Commissioner Matthew Swain then made a motion to propose a moratorium for a year to not include residential projects to power individual homes or corporate projects to power those entities. He wanted to see what a solar farm would look like under the current ordinance and see if the buffers are adequate.

Lawhon asked if planning director Michael Sandy would be willing to drive commissioners to one of the smaller solar facilities in Stanly to see what they look like, to which he agreed.

He then withdrew his motion and made a new motion asking county staff to draft a moratorium on solar projects.

The motion was seconded by Lowder and it passed, 6-1, with Burleson voting against the motion.

 

 

 

About Charles Curcio

Charles Curcio was the sports editor of the Stanly News & Press from 1999-2001 and has currently served in the same capacity since 2008. He was awarded the NCHSAA Tim Stevens Media Representative of the Year and named CNHI Sports Editor of the Year in 2014. He has also been honored twice by the North Carolina Press Association.

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