Stanly commissioners add restrictions to solar farm ordinance

Published 9:24 am Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Solar farms wishing to build in Stanly County will now face new, more stringent restrictions after Monday’s decision by the Stanly County Board of Commissioners.

The board unanimously passed restrictions described in a memo to the commissioners from County Zoning Board Vice Chairman David Underwood as “likely the most stringent ordinance in North Carolina regarding solar farms.”

Stanly County Planning Director Bob Remsburg presented the major changes to the existing ordinance at the meeting.

Changes included a clarification between major and minor Solar Energy Power Generating Systems (SEPGS), or solar farms, along with increasing setbacks of structures and fencing to 250 feet on all property lines.

Structure heights were reduced five feet to 20 feet, and the buffer zone now has to be 100 feet with the buffer vegetation to be 80 percent opaque within four growing seasons.

All electrical components must meet National Electric Code (NEC) requirements and Underwriter Laboratories (UL) certifications, with third-party companies to perform annual inspections of the property.

Any materials containing perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are banned and require a separate decommissioning plan for onsite battery storage systems. The plan and bond are also to be reviewed every five years or in cases of ownership changes

If the facility does not generate electricity for 12 consecutive months, decommissioning is required.

Initially, the height limit of vegetation growth outside buffer areas was to be two feet, or 24 inches, but an amendment passed unanimously by the board increased the height to 36 inches, or three feet.

Another change to the amendments given to the commissioners by the Planning Board was changing of a requirement of fire hydrants every 500 feet around the perimeter of the farm and chemical fire suppressants at battery storage areas and transformers.

Commissioner Tommy Jordan made the motion to amend item 18 of the memo, regarding fire hydrants, for the presumed applicant of a solar farm to develop a plan with the fire marshal’s office to have a fire combat plan for the facility. The motion passed 4-3, with Commissioners Lane Furr, Mike Barbee and Jordan with Vice Chairman Ashley Morgan voting for the motion. Chairman Matthew Swain and commissioners Zach Almond and Bill Lawhon voted against the motion.

Remsburg added the buffer requirements will “likely prevent any small kW solar farms from being developed” including projects like on Hatley Road or one near Badin. He added the initial hydrant requirements would likely prevent large farm development before the Board amended that part. Remsburg later noted the Hatley Farm project is under the jurisdiction of the Oakboro Town Council while the Badin project on Broadway Road is under county jurisdiction.

Remsburg said the Stanly Solar project on Old Aquadale Road and the Orion Project north of Pfeiffer are grandfathered in along with the Badin property.

Civil penalties may be imposed for any failure to comply with the ordinance, which also includes a requirement of notification to the county’s fire marshal and planning department of any additions or changes to the farm’s operation or ownership.

Barbee said the new restrictions are not just to protect residents next to solar farms but the owners of said farms “if the company goes out of business to get their land replaced.”

He further stated in conversations with engineers he was told solar panels increase in heat 15 to 20 degrees after installation which can affect bees foraging in the area, saying the bees “are going to be fried.”

Barbee also said he was told the reason three different solar companies were trying to build in Stanly was because the county had no regulations about solar farms and had three power line companies within the county’s borders.

Jordan called the plan “incredibly restrictive,” adding any place in the county which could benefit from a solar farm “simply removes the option. These are so over the top.” He added there “would hardly be another business in Stanly” if companies had to have 300 feet buffers on all sides, adding “it’s a ludicrous example to set.” Jordan also said “this isn’t a solar ordinance; it’s a kill solar ordinance, and that’s OK. But we might as well just be clear about what we’re doing.”

Both Barbee and Jordan agreed fire hydrants were not a good idea, with Jordan adding, “you don’t fight electrical fires with water. You fight them with foam.”

The board also discussed groundwater runoff during construction, with Barbee stating “any construction work above ground” has to prevent runoff from getting into creeks and streams, adding solar farm construction creates the same situation.

Notable former public officials and state environmental specialists along with Stanly residents spoke at length during a public meeting Monday regarding the new restrictions. Richard Vinroot, an attorney who is a former Charlotte mayor and gubernatorial candidate, spoke for the new guidelines along with Stanly attorney Charles Brown.

Brown called the changes to the ordinance “common sense regulations,” adding the changes were “nothing radical.”

Vinroot said the amendments would make Stanly’s ordinance on solar farms “a model ordinance of this sort in the state.”

Also speaking for the changes were John Skvarla, former Secretary of the Department of Environmental Quality during the Pat McCrory administration, Dr. Don Van der Vaart, also a former secretary for the same department, and Mike Ellison of W.K. Dickson Company, which Vinroot said specialized in water quality and preservation of environment.

Stanly residents speaking for the changes included Roddey Dowd, CEO of Charlotte Pipe and Foundry, a company who plans to move its main plant to Oakboro, and Robert Swain, father of the board’s chairman, Matthew Swain. The chairman ceded the gavel to Morgan when his father spoke in the public hearing.

Dowd said the amendments were “much-needed revisions which should be incorporated into our code. They adopt best practices for dealing with solar farms, practices that good, responsible environmental stewards and regulators know need to be in effect.” Others agreeing with him attended the meeting in support of the amendments.

Vinroot also said “you’re about to be invaded by solar farms the size of the football stadium in Charlotte,” referring to the Carolina Panthers’ Bank of America Stadium.

Several people spoke against the changes, including Wayne Coble, a local resident who said the changes were “arbitrary, impulsive and inconsistent” with zoning ordinances. He said if those are the changes the zoning board wanted, the commissioners should pass a moratorium on solar farms and the changes “will most likely have that impact.”

Phillip Martin, director of community engagement for Ecoplexus, Inc., a Durham solar energy company, said the ordinance was “obviously skewed to one side.” He said he would like for it to be tabled so the company could have input on it.

He said his company can work with the new amendments, but added “there are a few sticking points” to add flexibility, including the hydrants, noting the company had agreed to furnish specialized training for local firefighters and any equipment needed. He said the company was fine with groundwater baseline testing but asked what other businesses in Stanly had to do such. He said the only thing in the ground was the steel for the racking.

“We have less runoff than any other type of development,” Martin said, adding plans are in place for storm water runoff.

After the public meeting and a lengthy board discussion, the Board passed the amendments to the ordinance with the two changes to the zoning board’s recommendations unanimously.

About Charles Curcio

Charles Curcio has served as the sports editor of the Stanly News & Press for more than 16 years and has written numerous news and feature storeis as well. 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 won an award from Boone Newspapers, and has won four North Carolina Press Association awards.

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