Currituck OKs ban on solar projects


Currituck commissioners voted Monday to ban any more solar farm development in the county. Here, solar panels that are part of SunEnergy1's solar farm on Ferrell Mill Road, southeast of Moyock, are shown Thursday, Jan. 11.


By William F. West
Staff Writer

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

CURRITUCK – Currituck commissioners voted Monday night to ban all future solar facility development in the county, meaning only two solar farms — one completed, the other still under construction — will be allowed to operate in the county.

Commissioners voted 5-0 for the ban in spite of assertions by SunEnergy1 officials that the company had followed its promises building its current solar farm and attempted to be a good corporate citizen, hiring local workers and buying local supplies. 

Voting for the ban were board Chairman Bobby Hanig and Commissioners Paul Beaumont, Kitty Etheridge, Marion Gilbert and Mike Payment. Commissioners Mike Hall and Bob White were absent from Monday’s meeting.

The decision grandfathers in a solar farm located across N.C. Highway 34 from Shawboro Elementary School and operated by Duke Energy, as well as the still-under-construction solar farm SunEnergy1 is building off Ferrell Mill Road southeast of Moyock.

The vote follows a Feb. 14 recommendation by the Currituck Planning Board to ban all future solar farm development in Currituck. It also follows a decision by commissioners in January to impose a 60-day moratorium on any more solar farms in the county. 

Commissioners imposed the moratorium following a report by the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality expressing concern about the loss of farmland and wildlife habitats to solar farm development. Currituck residents have also expressed concern about solar farm development, citing what they claim are adverse effects on neighborhood aesthetics and property values.

Despite commissioners voting to impose the ban, Hanig appeared to suggest it was more like a long pause.

“It does allow us ... some time to cross the t's and dot some i's to make sure that the places that we put solar are the proper places," Hanig said just before the vote.

In the meantime, commissioners felt an obligation to act in the best interests of all county residents, he said.

“It isn't our responsibility to look out for some landowners in this county," he said. “It's our responsibility to look out for every single person in this county.”

Moments before the vote, Gilbert publicly apologized for voting to approve the two solar farms in Moyock and Shawboro. She said she had voted for both projects “because I trust people coming out the gate." Since those votes, however, she had witnessed the noise and other issues residents have complained about with solar farm development. As a result, those two projects had become “lessons learned for us as commissioners," she said.

Prior to the vote, Barbara Busitzky, a Currituck resident who lives on Mustang Trail next to the SunEnergy1 project, spoke in favor of the ban. She described the solar farm project, with its all-night “beat, beat, beat, beat” construction noises, as an irritant to her and her neighbors. She also said SunEnergy1 has yet to complete the berm it said it would build to shield the solar farm project from her neighborhood.

Busitzky also told commissioners she doesn't see solar farms as a benefit to Currituck.

“It's not helping the common folk at all," she said. “It does help the tax credit a little, for a little while, but other than that, it to me is just absolutely money in their (the solar panel industry's) pockets, which probably isn't staying in the states anyway."

Several SunEnergy1 officials also spoke at Monday’s hearing in defense of their company and its project. 

Steve LaFleur addressed parts of what he claimed was an email from a county commissioner to other commissioners that he said contained false or misleading statements about the company's conduct in Currituck.

LaFleur, who did not name the commissioner who sent the email, said SunEnergy1 did not go back on promises to build the berm and provide landscaping at its solar farm site. He said the berm in fact had been completed, noting it also had been a volunteer measure — not something SunEnergy1 had been required to build. He said while it's true the company initially didn’t plan to landscape the solar farm, SunEnergy1 is now putting in landscaping at the site.

LaFleur also said SunEnergy1 had made “significant efforts” to use local suppliers whenever possible. He said the company continues to rent at least four houses in Currituck to accommodate its workers.

He said it's untrue SunEnergy1 workers held up passports while at a supermarket in Currituck in an effort to avoid paying sales taxes. He said SunEnergy1 contacted the supermarket's management, which advised the store had never had an issue with the company’s employees.

Linda Nwadike, who also works for SunEnergy1, said the company had used seven different agencies to find local residents to work on the solar farm project. She also said the company is paying taxes in Currituck and that its solar farm project has had an economic impact on the county through sales at gas stations, grocery stores and restaurants.

Nwadike also noted SunEnergy1 had been a good corporate citizen, providing donations to a variety of charitable organizations in Currituck and the surrounding area. Those donations include to the Currituck Kids program, the Currituck YMCA, 4-H, Food Bank of the Albemarle, the Albemarle Area Commission on Aging, and the N.C. Potato Festival.

“We like to be good neighbors," she told commissioners. “We don't broadcast our donations, but unfortunately tonight it seems that we have to."