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Planners: Limit solar farms' proximity to bypass

110918 Solar

Traffic is shown on U.S. Highway 17 Bypass at the interchange with Halstead Boulevard Extended, Thursday. The Pasquotank Planning Board voted Wednesday night to recommend county commissioners require solar farms be built at least half a mile from U.S. 17 Bypass and Halstead Boulevard Extended.

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Pasquotank County should allow large-scale solar farms, but away from the U.S. 17 Bypass, the county's planning board recommended in split votes Wednesday night.

With a large audience in Courtroom C looking on, the Planning Board voted against two of three new restrictions county staff have proposed for new solar farms.

Board members voted 6-1 to oppose limiting solar farms to 250 acres and requiring a mile's separation between them. They voted 4-3, however, in favor of requiring solar farms be built at least half a mile from the U.S. 17 Bypass and Halstead Boulevard Extended. County staff have argued that both are major corridors whose surrounding land should be preserved for other kinds of development.

The board’s votes followed almost an hour of public comment, in which almost 20 county residents, plus several solar developers, argued against the restrictions.

The board’s votes come as Adani Solar USA, an international solar company, is proposing a 3,000-acre solar farm on the western side of U.S. 17 and near Halstead Extended. No official for the company spoke at Wednesday’s hearing, and no spokesman for the firm returned a request for comment Thursday.

Planning Director Shelley Cox started the discussion Wednesday by explaining county commissioners had recommended the 250-acre cap, based on the two existing solar farms in the county, both of which are under that size. The one-mile separation between solar farms would limit how many are built, she added.

Cox also said the half-mile setback from U.S. 17 and Halstead Extended would create a “reasonable buffer” in which other businesses and industries could still build close to the highway.

Almost all of Wednesday's public speakers strongly disagreed, however, arguing the restrictions would kill solar projects altogether, deny Pasquotank the benefits of major new investment, and send a message the county is not interested in new, innovative companies.

Also arguing against the restrictions were representatives of renewable energy developers, including Avangrid Renewables, developer of the Amazon Wind Farm US East.

Jason DuTerroil, of Avangrid, said the company is considering building a solar project in Pasquotank, and argued the 250-acre limit was “arbitrary” and would severely affect creating a marketable product.

The limits could also affect Albemarle Electric Membership Corp., according to Jay Nemeth, president of Oakhurst Energy Solutions. He said his company is looking at a solar and battery storage project that would tie into an AEMC substation close to the U.S. 17/Halstead intersection. That project would help lower demand and transmission costs, saving money for the company, but won't be feasible without building close to the substation, he said.

Phillip Martin, of Cypress Creek Renewables, in Durham, said his company is working with Oakhurst, and also criticized the restrictions as arbitrary. He also argued they impinged on personal property rights.

“That's a personal property right issue; you wouldn't tell a farmer he couldn't farm on more than 250 acres of his land,” Martin said.

Numerous local residents defended the project as well, claiming it represented hundreds of millions of dollars in investment, and would generate lasting tax revenues Pasquotank sorely needs.

“The (three restrictions) are all deal-killers for a project that could be the largest solar farm east of the Mississippi” River, said Doug Gardner, the first public speaker of the night. He also argued that regulations to kill the farm would send a chilling signal to other major businesses Pasquotank wants to attract.

“Word will get around that Pasquotank County does not want innovative businesses,” Gardner said, also alleging that Adani dropped plans for a manufacturing facility in part due to a “chilly” reception from the county.

Curtis Wrenn said he moved to Pasquotank in part because the county supported green energy. He said a large solar farm could attract “server farms” and other facilities that want to be close to energy infrastructure. Breaking with other speakers, however, he called for the county to retain the setback from U.S. 17.

Joseph Persico, of the citizens' group NENC Progressives, argued against all three restrictions.

“I think that any regulation placed against solar is saying, 'we don't want you here,'” he said.

He argued that arguments that solar panels leach harmful chemicals into local waters, and that they prevent all agricultural use of land, are misconceptions. New, silicon-based panels don't leak chemicals and last for many years, he said. He also said solar farms make the electrical grid more stable.

Michelle and Tim Aydlett also argued against the restrictions, saying the county greatly needs the additional tax revenue the solar farm would generate. Similar to Gardner, Tim Aydlett argued Pasquotank had wrongly killed new businesses in the past, and it would be “wonderful” to see Pasquotank “lead the state” in solar development.

John Crouse, a local property developer, rejected the need for setbacks along all of the U.S. 17 Bypass, which is also part of the future Interstate 87. The bypass will remain a controlled-access highway, meaning businesses will develop in clusters around exits, not scattered along the corridor, he said.

Barry and Mary Anne Keyes also argued the county needs the solar farm's investment, with Mary Anne arguing the farm would help the county get “on the map” and draw other companies.

Other speakers opposed to the restrictions Wednesday included Nita Coleman, Karl Brandspigel, Uli Bennewitz, Troy Brinkley and Sharon Burtner.

The lone speaker for the restrictions was Jesse John Morris, who argued the large solar farm would harm growth, not help it.

Following the public comments, Planning Board member Hezekiah Brown spoke in favor of solar projects. Saying the county needs to find a way to “make this happen,” he initially proposed recommending against all three restrictions.

County Attorney Mike Cox asked for a recess before the motion proceeded, however. Mike Cox said that state law requires motions, whether for or against the restrictions, be adopted with statements explaining how the actions are consistent with the county's planning ordinance.

After a few minutes' recess, during which most board members remained in the room but talked among themselves, Brown moved to recommend against only the 250-acre cap and the one-mile separation between solar farms. That motion passed by a 6-1 vote, with Kevin Brickhouse voting in opposition.

The board voted to support the half-mile setback 4-3, with Chairman William Kruse, David McGuire, and Brickhouse voting in opposition.

Audience members objected to the motion change. Some also alleged county staff had persuaded Planning Board members to support one of the restrictions.

“Absolutely not,” Mike Cox said, explaining county staff had to review statutes to find legally defensible grounds on which the Planning Board could advise against the restrictions.

Brown also said Thursday that county staff did not try to influence members' votes.

The Planning Board's recommendations will go next to county commissioners, who will consider them but are free to decide differently.

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