Pasquotank OKs new solar limits
By Jon Hawley
Wednesday, October 18, 2017
Pasquotank County commissioners on Monday set new restrictions on solar farms — restrictions that commissioners say are needed to protect property owners and taxpayers alike.
The seven commissioners voted unanimously to amend the county's solar farm ordinance to require solar farms to have larger setbacks from neighboring properties, plant and maintain vegetation to obscure the facilities from view, and purchase larger “decommissioning bonds” to cover the costs of restoring land to its original state when a solar farm is closed down.
The new requirements would not apply to three existing solar farms in Pasquotank: two off U.S. Highway 17 just south of Elizabeth City and one north of Elizabeth City at Morgans Corner.
Pasquotank Planning Director Shelley Cox recapped the ordinance's provisions Monday night. They are unchanged from when commissioners tentatively approved them in August.
Among the provisions are new setbacks and buffers. Previously solar farms didn't need to plant trees or other large vegetation to obscure their facilities, so long as solar panels were at least 150 feet from neighboring properties.
Now solar farm structures, including fencing, must be 150 feet from the front of the property and at least 50 feet back from the rear and side property lines. Those 50-foot setbacks increase to 150 feet if the solar farm borders residential property.
Additionally, the new ordinance requires “vegetative buffering” be maintained all around the solar farm, whether it's near residential property or not.
The new ordinance also requires solar farm owners to create and regularly update a plan on how their facilities will be closed down and removed; the plan must also estimate the farm's total decommissioning costs.
Solar farm owners must also provide the county a decommissioning bond or “irrevocable letter of credit” to cover the costs of decommissioning a solar farm if the owners can't or won't do so themselves.
The prior ordinance also contained that requirement, but the new ordinance specifies the bond must be worth 1.25 times the farm's decommissioning cost, and owners may not count the farm's scrap value against the decommissioning cost.
Commissioners forbid considering scrap value after Cox explained solar developers vary in their estimates of scrap value. One solar developer in Pasquotank, SunEnergy1, estimates its farm's scrap value will cover all decommissioning costs and so it didn't post a bond, Cox reported earlier this year.
Commissioners approved the ordinance after a public hearing which drew no public comment. However, a solar advocacy organization has opposed it. In March, the Solar Energy Industries Association criticized the county's bond requirements as discouraging investment.
Cox has said a solar farm developer can buy bonds for far less than the amount they're worth.