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Developer, county meet on large solar farm

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Thursday, June 21, 2018

The company considering a massive solar farm in Pasquotank County met behind closed doors with the county Board of Commissioners on Monday, but it's unclear if they've won the board's support for the potentially 3,500-acre facility.

Commissioners met with several representatives of the company, as well as Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Economic Developer Wayne Harris, in a closed session Monday afternoon in the Pasquotank County Library. Company officials refused to identify themselves or their company upon exiting the meeting.

The still-secret company has suggested building a solar farm that could be 3,000 to 3,500 acres in Pasquotank's desert area. It would be near but have little to no overlap with the Amazon Wind Farm US East, Harris has said.

Concerned the project may be too big, commissioners earlier this month enacted a two-month moratorium on new solar farm applications while county staff draft changes to the county's solar ordinance. Whether those changes will kill the project remains to be seen, but county Planning Director Shelley Cox has suggested forbidding solar farms in the county's desert area, or limiting their size to 200 acres.

In phone interviews on Tuesday, commissioners offered their general takeaways from the solar developer’s presentation, but wouldn't get into details.

Board Vice Chairman Bill Sterritt said he thought the company gave an “outstanding” presentation and he's “interested in seeing the project go forward.”

“It could be a great thing for the county, the community,” he said.

Sterritt is alluding to the major investment that would follow a solar farm of that size; it would presumably cost many millions of dollars and generate numerous short-term construction jobs.

Sterritt also said he believes the county is “a long ways from intense discussion with them,” because the project is in its very early stages.

Commissioner Jeff Dixon similarly said the company is a long ways from seeking a conditional use permit from the county — a requirement if it wanted to build a solar farm. The solar developer still has a gauntlet of federal and state permits and reviews to go through, he explained. Among the agencies that would have to review the project include the Environmental Protection Agency, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality.

Like Sterritt, Dixon also believes the project should move forward. It is a large project, he acknowledged, but its total acreage is still only about 5 percent of the entire desert area.

However, Dixon also noted Pasquotank commissioners have urged state lawmakers to reduce a property tax break for solar farms, which are currently only taxed at a fifth of their value.

Dixon said commissioners discussed that issue with the company’s representatives, who said they still need the 80-percent tax break.

Commissioners Lloyd Griffin and Frankie Meads remain skeptical of the project, however.

“I just hate seeing farmland being converted to glass panels,” Griffin said, suggesting there would be few economic benefits to the farm.

Asked how far off the project was, Griffin noted a big hurdle for large utility projects is finding a power purchaser. That was a challenge for Avangrid Renewables, the developer of the Amazon wind farm, he noted.

Meads said he believes there's more economic benefit to farming the land than putting solar panels on it. However, he called for the county to cautiously consider the project, rather than oppose it.

“My takeaway is this should be very slow going,” he said.

Commissioner Charles Jordan said it “seems like there might be real positives” with the project, but he's still learning about it.

“I'm just listening and taking in information,” he said.

Chairman Cecil Perry and Commissioner Joe Winslow did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

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