Don't risk losing project now counting on ones to come


Sunday, November 18, 2018

Typically when a developer says he wants to build a pollution-free industrial facility capable of bringing in potentially hundreds of thousands a year in extra property tax revenue, elected officials are slapping themselves silly over their community’s good fortune. 

Not so with Adani Solar USA’s proposed 3,000-acre Birchwood Solar farm in Pasquotank County.

Over the past year, Pasquotank commissioners have reacted to Adani Solar’s proposal with ambivalence: excited on the one hand about the prospect of attracting a large property taxpayer; concerned on the other hand about losing the county’s agricultural identity and the location where Adani wants to build: on the western side of U.S. Highway 17 Bypass near the Halstead Boulevard Extended interchange.

Commissioners have reacted by imposing two consecutive 60-day moratoriums on any new solar farms, moratoriums specifically designed to hold up development of Adani’s project. Commissioners say the moratoriums — the latest is scheduled to expire later this month — were needed to give county planners more time to develop new rules governing solar farms. But the new rules the county’s come up with seem designed to block the large solar farm project, not regulate it.   

During a public hearing held by the Pasquotank Planning Board earlier this month, county Planning Director Shelley Cox outlined three new amendments to the county’s solar ordinance designed specifically to address Adani’s proposed project. One would cap all new solar farms to 250 acres. Another would impose a one-mile separation between solar farms. A third would impose a half-mile setback from U.S. Highway 17 and Halstead Boulevard Extended on any future solar farm project. 

After roughly 20 members of the public, including representatives of solar companies, weighed in against all three amendments, saying their adoption would kill the Adani project, the Planning Board voted to recommend adoption of only one: the half-mile setback from U.S. 17 and Halstead Boulevard Extended. The recommendation will now go to county commissioners, who can reject it completely and not impose any of the amendments or reject it in part and adopt all three.

We’re urging them to do the former.

As a number of speakers at the hearing opined, there are numerous benefits to having the Birchwood Solar farm built in Pasquotank County. Besides the obvious property tax benefits that would immediately accrue to the county to help our struggling school district, the Birchwood Solar farm would, along with the Amazon U.S. East Wind Farm off U.S. 17 Bypass, uniquely position Pasquotank County to become the state’s leader in what already is a growth industry: renewable energy. The Birchwood Solar project also would signal other high-tech firms that Pasquotank is welcoming of their investment, giving the county the recruitment edge over others looking to site facilities.

Critics of the Birchwood Solar project like to point out that it won’t create many jobs in Pasquotank and that the energy it produces won’t specifically be used by county residents. But such criticisms don’t really make much sense. The land Adani is eyeing for its solar project is currently used as farmland, which, thanks to technology, doesn’t employ a ton of workers either. There aren’t 25 people on tractors on the property tilling the soil or harvesting crops everyday. So why should a solar farm be held to a different standard when it comes to job creation? Also, no one receives electricity produced near where they live; electricity goes into a huge grid that’s dispersed across the country. 

The only criticism of the Birchwood Solar project with any merit is the one over its proposed location: adjacent to U.S. 17 Bypass, considered prime commercial real estate. Solar industry officials say being able to build at the site, without an arbitrary half-mile setback, is critical to tying the large solar farm into the existing power transmission system, making the overall project less costly. The project’s critics point out, however, that allowing Adani to build along the bypass would consume prime acreage, rendering it unavailable for future use by other developers. 

It’s a valid concern. Obviously a solar farm can’t generate anywhere near the tax revenue a commercial development can for the amount of land used. However, economic development isn’t a zero sum game. Having a large solar farm west of 17 Bypass doesn’t automatically mean other types of commercial development also won’t take place there. Plus, it’s not like all the prime land for commercial development along the U.S. 17-Halstead Extended corridor is already taken. Halstead Extended opened 14 years ago, and there’s still plenty of land along it that remains undeveloped.

Economic development also shouldn’t be motivated by magical thinking. We shouldn’t block a clean, taxpaying industry that wants to locate here today just because we believe we might be able to attract another shopping center, a distribution center or a small manufacturing plant to the site sometime in the future. The Adani project isn’t pie in the sky. It’s not an opportunity that may come along down the road one day; it’s here right now — and it’s at risk of going elsewhere if our elected leaders aren’t focused on what’s in front of them.