WINTON – The general consensus emerging from a public hearing here Tuesday night is that constructing solar farms in Hertford County should move forward in a timely manner.
Meanwhile, county officials find themselves in somewhat of a bind – welcoming new business on one hand while attempting to balance a need to establish setbacks, guidelines and parameters for such projects on the other hand.
Somewhere, in the middle, is common ground.
In an advertised public hearing calling for input on the consideration of adopting a moratorium on the issuance of zoning permits for solar energy farms, the county’s Board of Commissioners took no action on the issue due to the lack of a full board (Commissioner Ronald Gatling was absent). However, in the end, the board members present did promise to move in an expedient manner.
At the opening of the public hearing, Hertford County Economic Development Director Bill Early said the Planning Board is aware that numerous properties throughout the county have been optioned for the development of solar farms.
“While some development companies have sought county direction and input as to appropriate locations, there are other locations in which the county has not been provided input and guidance,” Early stated. “Hertford County supports renewable energy and solar farm development, however, locations for this type of development must protect the public interest, which includes scarce land for heavy industry and protection of residential development.”
Early said the moratorium is necessary since the county currently has no guidelines in place for the location and development of solar farms in any of the county’s zoning district. Guidelines may address appropriateness of districts, possible Conditional Use or Special Use permits and criteria for setbacks, visibility and decommissioning.
“The moratorium on the issuance of zoning permits will allow our Planning Board the necessary time to review guidelines in place in other jurisdictions and develop guidelines suitable for adoption here,” Early remarked.
Early said there are currently as many as 21 sites in various stages of development in the county, to include two under construction (one each in Millennium and Cofield).
“Our office was only aware of four of these projects, as I related to you at your December meeting,” Early told the board. “It is believed it may take up to 90 days to properly research and develop guidelines for implementation. The Planning Board will work to resolve the concerns as expeditiously as possible.
“We have already obtained solar energy development ordinance guidelines,” Early continued. “Once guidelines are developed the Planning Board will present the recommendations to the Commissioners in order to schedule a public hearing and consider adoption of the guidelines.”
He added if a moratorium is enacted, that it revoke any applications for Certificates of Zoning Compliance filed following the Dec. 15, 2014 County Commissioners’ meeting where a public hearing was called on this issue.
That mid-December timing caught the developers of at least three projects off-guard.
Carson Harkrader of Carolina Solar Energies, a Durham based firm in the business of developing solar farm projects for the past 10 years, said her company approached Early in the summer of 2013 to learn about the requirements for solar farms in the county.
“Mr. Early was very active and supportive and took us around the county to look at appropriate sites for solar, including one owned by David Simons and his father outside of Ahoskie,” said Harkrader as the public comment portion of the meeting was opened.
Harkrader added that her company entered into a lease agreement with the Simons in October of 2013 for use as a solar farm.
“We were assured that the Simons site was appropriate for a solar farm and that a building permit would be granted by Hertford County in due course,” Harkrader stated.
She went on to say that her company has invested nearly $300,000 in this project, which she said has the approval of two state agencies – the Public Utilities Commission and Department of Environment and Natural Resources – as well as receiving an interconnection agreement with Dominion North Carolina Power last month.
“We are ready to begin construction and we ask to do so right away,” Harkrader stressed.
David Simons said the property Harkrader was referencing is 40 acres of cutover timberland in an isolated area located off US 13 near a Dominion NC Power substation.
“We have an opportunity to generate additional income from this farm by way of a green energy source,” Simons said. “This solar farm will also help the county in increased tax base and tax revenue.
“This solar farm is a good land use; it does not create any noise, odors, dust, and traffic that other industries might create,” Simons added. “We have submitted a zoning application. I would like the Commissioners to allow us to proceed. If not, this project and financial outlay for this project are in jeopardy.”
Mark Finkelstein, an attorney representing Simons Farms and Carolina Solar Energies, claimed there were legal issues to be addressed, saying the Simons project should not be subject to the proposed moratorium. He cited NC General Statute 135A-340 (h), which states, “absent of imminent threat to public health or safety, a development moratorium shall not apply to any project for which a valid conditional use or special use application has been accepted.”
“We believe the documentation that we presented, although not called either of those things (conditional use or special use), the statute does not care what they are called,” Finkelstein said. “We don’t want to fight; we want to be on the same side with you on this very important issue. The county and this project have been aligned throughout this process.”
He suggested the local commissioners enact a moratorium that only impacts newly created solar farm projects, and not ones that have been through the system and are ready to build.
Commissioner Johnnie Ray Farmer inquired of the date of the zoning permit application made on behalf of the Simons Farm project. Finkelstein answered that it was made last month.
The Commissioners also heard from other individuals representing solar farm interests in the county. Local attorney Takiya Lewis said she had a client that owns property located behind Hertford County High School (in the Colonial Acres area) who had been approached by Sun Energy about leasing his land for a solar farm.
“Amidst the talk about this moratorium, they rescinded their contract offer,” Lewis said. “There is currently another company interested in the same property for a solar farm. My client asks for the county’s moratorium to exclude his property.”
CountyAttorney Chuck Revelle asked Lewis if the property in question was in the county’s jurisdiction or the Town of Ahoskie. She said she believed it to be in the town, to which Revelle pointed out that any request for a zoning permit/variance would be subject to Ahoskie’s zoning regulations.
Chris Killenberg of Community Energy, a solar farm development company based in Chapel Hill, said his firm currently has two projects planned in Hertford County, one on NC 11 south of Ahoskie and the other located near Winton.
“Of our 18 projects to date that have been completed across the state, we’ve faced a number of ordinances, many of which will look very much like what you are planning to adopt,” he said. “We generally develop our projects as if there was an ordinance in place, even when there isn’t one. Both our sites in HertfordCounty will stand up to any ordinance typically seen in any county or state.”
While he understands what Hertford County officials are attempting to accomplish by enacting an ordinance governing the placement of solar farms, Killenberg said the main issue now is timing.
“These projects benefit from investment tax credits from the state, which expire at the end of this year. In order to qualify for that tax credit, you have to be in operation by Dec. 31, 2015,” he noted.
Killenberg said his company’s two projects in Hertford County are scheduled to be constructed this year.
“Our concern would be if there is a 90-day period of determining what the ordinance is, it pushes the date at which we want to start our projects here out so far into the year where we are at risk completing the projects by the end of the year,” he stressed.
Killenberg added that the news of a possible moratorium took him by surprise.
“We’ve been active on these projects for over one year, but we haven’t applied for a (zoning) application from the county yet,” he stated. “We didn’t think the permitting process would be burdensome or time-consuming, but we feel we’ve been working with the county in good faith. While we support your idea of an ordinance, if you do adopt one we would ask that you fast-track the process or somehow take into consideration those of us who have been working on these projects for a period of time.”
Libby Jones of Winton, whose land near the Oak Villa community is one of the two local properties under development by Killenberg’s company, said she and her sister have been working with Community Energy since October of 2013.
“I ask that his appeal be taken seriously; that the county move forward with a decision on a fairly quick basis,” she said. “I hope this project become a positive addition to the county’s tax base.”
The public hearing’s final plea came from local forester Michael Neal. He stressed that the Roanoke-Chowan area is already in the business of producing energy with wood-fired co-generation plants (each developed by Perdue); and a plant (Enviva) that annually produces 300,000 tons of pellets from local forests that are exported to Europe to produce clean energy.
“(With solar plants) we now have the opportunity to convert less than one percent of the land in this county to the direct production of electricity,” Neal observed. “These solar projects make sense, even without the tax credits. Solar farms are safe, quiet, non-polluting, efficient, and allow us to be more energy independent. We have an opportunity to be on the leading edge of the green energy wave.”
With all that said, Neal stated that he believes the proposed moratorium is a direct result of a site he sold to Sun Energy on River Road near Nucor.
“This site was a portion of the designated industrial area that I have been trying to develop for Forest Investment Associates,” Neal said. “It’s been on the market for eight years. Nucor did not like the solar farm idea and complained. Over 200 acres remain available between River Road and Nucor’s utility corridor and an additional 2,000 acres (plus or minus) are available for development.”
Neal added that in designing the sale to Sun Energy, he reserved a 150 foot corridor adjacent to Nucor’s corridor for the possible expansion of rail and gas lines from the Structural Coatings site.
In attempting to point out there is enough land to satisfy the needs of solar farm development and any possible expansion plans by Nucor, he stated there remains about 235 acres in one block of land in an industrial area; another 40 acres between Nucor and the Leeco Steel lot; and approximately 1,500 acres on the other side of Nucor’s utility corridor.
He also talked about the potential benefits the county would see if the five known solar farm projects are built – $75,600 in added tax base; 500 construction jobs; and 60 full time jobs once the projects are completed.
“It is hard for me to understand what great harm the sale of this 80-acre tract on River Road has done to the availability of future industrial development land. We don’t have a lot of time to study this issue too much. I ask that the commissioners not stand in the way of this construction and not stand in the way of letting Hertford County lead the area in electricity production,” Neal concluded.
At the close of the public comments, Commissioner Curtis Freeman said he didn’t personally think that 90 days would be needed to study this issue.
“We need to make a decision on this fairly quickly,” Freeman said of a possible moratorium leading to the development of an ordinance dealing with solar farms.
Commissioner Johnnie Ray Farmer said he understood the timing factors involved with these projects.
“We need to rush this along, but at the same time make sure we do it right,” he stated. “We welcome industry here, but we first have the responsibility of protecting the general welfare of our citizens. I would suggest that our Planning and Zoning folks reach out to the people with experience on solar farms and make sure we get some good advice on developing our ordinance. We want to deal with this fairly and properly, and get it done so we can get back to business and get these solar farms built.”
In an interview following Tuesday’s meeting, Early told the News-Herald that he understood the timing issue of these projects as they are linked with federal subsidies.
“Our federal and state government encourages the development of renewable energy sources,” Early said. “Up to 65 percent of the construction costs for approved solar farms are paid through subsidies. Those subsidies end on Dec. 31 and many of the developers of these projects are scrambling to get those projects on line before the subsidies end.
“But my main job is to protect the county’s best interest. We will not recommend overly restrictive guidelines; we just need something in place for setbacks and buffers around these solar farms,” Early concluded.