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Currituck planners: No more solar farms

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Solar panels at SunEnergy1's solar farm on Ferrell Mill Road, southeast of Moyock, are shown Thursday, Jan. 12. The Currituck Planning Board is recommending the county Board of Commissioners permanently ban the future development of solar farms in the county.

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By William F. West
Staff Writer

Thursday, February 16, 2017

CURRITUCK – The Currituck Planning Board is recommending that county commissioners permanently ban development of any future solar farms in the county — but only after adequate notice to the public and a review of the impacts. 

Five of the planning board’s nine members present for Tuesday’s meeting voted unanimously to recommend the county’s unified development ordinance be amended to remove solar arrays as a permitted use. 

The recommendation, made by the county Planning Department, must be approved by county commissioners, who will hold a public hearing on it at their meeting Monday at 6 p.m.

Under the recommendation, Duke Energy would still be able to continue to operate a solar farm off Ferrell Mill Road southeast of Moyock. SunEnergy1 could also continue construction of a solar farm off Ranchland Drive southeast of Moyock.

A third solar farm project, for which Currituck commissioners denied a permit last year, would also be “grandfathered in” and allowed to be constructed off Uncle Graham Road should its developers win their appeal against the county. Ecoplexus’ appeal of the county’s permit denial is still pending in Currituck Superior Court. 

However, no other solar farm projects could receive permit approval, a required step for construction.

The Planning Board’s recommendation comes in the wake of commissioners’ decision last month to impose a 60-day moratorium on consideration of any more solar farms in the county. 

Currituck Planning Director Ben Woody cited a number of reasons Tuesday for commissioners’ decision to impose the moratorium. One was a report by the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality expressing concern about the loss of agricultural land and jobs in the state, as well as the loss of wildlife habitats.

Another reason for the moratorium, Woody said, was the N.C. Utilities Commission’s ranking of Currituck fifth in the state for applications for new solar farms. He said Currituck residents are also upset with solar farm development, citing what they claim are adverse effects on neighborhood aesthetics and property values.

Commissioners also cited Currituck's land use policy, which states the county cannot support the exploration or development of energy producing facilities, including renewable energy projects.

While the Planning Board recommended approval of a permanent ban on solar farm development, the motion that passed also includes a list of caveats suggested by member Jane Overstreet. One is that commissioners not rush into a quick decision. Overstreet suggested commissioners first look into what impact a solar farm ban would have on the income of property owners. She also hoped there would be adequate public notice and a chance for citizen feedback before the county makes a decision of such importance to property owners.

Overstreet recommended commissioners take their time imposing the ban given the “180-degree turn” the move represents. Woody noted Tuesday that Currituck’s past economic development strategy had included development of renewable energy sources, but the current Board of Commissioners, which includes three new members, decided to remove that provision.

“I don't see the urgency in the timing to make such a broad statement (to ban solar farms), countywide, because that's a major economic change of course for the county,” she said.

Overstreet was also concerned about the fact that only five of the Planning Board’s nine members were in attendance at Tuesday’s meeting. Although the board had enough members attending for a quorum, both its chairwoman and vice chairman were absent.

The lone public speaker at Tuesday's Planning Board meeting was Grandy area resident Steve Fentress, who said he never wants to see another solar farm in Currituck. Fentress said he favors the county imposing regulations so tight that solar farm companies won't want to do business in Currituck.

Fentress claimed that approximately a year ago, North Carolina was fourth in the nation behind California in solar farm development. Now the state is ranked No. 2.

“Right now, we are low-hanging fruit (for solar farm developers), as is all of northeast North Carolina – in fact, all of North Carolina,” he said.

Planning Board member Steven Craddock, who served as the board’s acting chairman Tuesday night, said he was puzzled by the change of heart by commissioners. 

“Something that I find interesting is the fact that we as a county allowed this use to become able to be performed,” he said. “And now, perhaps from political pressure, residents being angry that these proposed solar arrays – or actual solar arrays that exist now – are near their neighborhoods, are causing pressure on commissioners.

“I find it interesting that the county appeared to be very gung-ho on allowing this type of use and now is not so gung-ho,” he said.

Craddock asked Woody about the possibility of the Planning Board tabling the proposed ban and reviewing it after the Ecoplexus appeal has been decided.

Woody said the Planning Board had 60 days to act on the proposed ban but can't hold off indefinitely. He said county commissioners would like to take up the proposed ban on Monday, but could not without a recommendation from the Planning Board.

“I would ask, on behalf of the county as the applicant, that you do take some sort of action on this amendment,” he said.

Woody also cited concerns about the moratorium expiring at the start of March, ahead of the next Planning Board meeting, meaning “probably a slew of applications” for new solar farms could be submitted in the interim.

“In a couple of months, you may have public hearings on thousands and thousands and thousands of acres of land for solar farms,” he said.

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