GATESVILLE – Gates County, like most rural areas of eastern North Carolina, is becoming a popular place for the development of solar farms.
However, like most counties, Gates does not have a diverse ordinance dealing with solar farms. That matter was discussed at the county’s Board of Commissioners meeting held earlier this month.
“There has been a lot of activity in our county on solar farms,” said Linda Hofler, chair of the Commissioners. “Some of us have attended meetings concerning such facilities in an effort to gain more background information on how they start up and how they operate. I’ve come away from those meetings more determined that we need something in our county ordinance that protects our citizens.”
The only thing in place at the current time pertains to buffer zones around solar farms.
County Manager Natalie Rountree said the current ordinance pertaining to solar farms requires a 50-foot setback buffer on all sides. If that site fronts a US/ federal aid highway, the setback from the front increases to 100 feet.
“On a secondary road, no buffer that wide is needed,” said County Planner Jennifer Baptiste. “If there are adjoining residences, the 50-foot buffer is required.
Baptiste added that the board of adjustments has the authority to add other conditions to a special use permit, to include lengthening the buffers on property where streams are present. She noted that solar farms have to apply for a special use permit prior to being allowed to site, build and operate in Gates County. Once an application for such a permit is obtained she said all adjacent landowners are notified of the applicant’s request.
“We want to protect all citizens; there’s a planned 1,500 area solar farm with residences nearby and we want to protect them,” Hofler remarked. “Plus we need to think of the impact on wildlife. We need to make sure everything is in order; we need to be prepared.”
Hofler added it’s to her understanding that land for solar farms is leased rather than purchased and the normal leases are good for 20 years; while others may last for 30-35 years.
“It’s to my understanding that the life of solar panels is typically 20 years before being replaced,” Hofler said.
Researching the solar farm ordinance in nearby Pasquotank County, Holfer noted that it states, “solar farm facilities shall be removed, at the owner’s expense, within 180 days of a determination by the Zoning Administrator that the facility is no longer being maintained in an operable state of good repair.”
“What happens if the company goes bankrupt, or the solar panels are no longer operational and the land is leased….the landowner is left with what,” Hofler quizzed. “They’re left with 1,000-plus acres of panels that are no longer any good and the land cannot be reused until those panels are removed. What do we have in place in case that happens? We need to make them (solar farm operators) aware of our concerns.”
“That’s where it becomes a little bit tricky,” said Baptiste, “getting into private leases with conditions.”
“We do not need to get into their business; we need to develop an ordinance and everybody functions and operates by that ordinance,” said Commission Vice Chairman Jack Owens.
“We need to be proactive instead of reactionary…right now it seems this issue is more reactionary,” said Hofler.
“If these landowners are aware of what’s included in a county wide ordinance, it stops and makes them think that they need to put some type of verbiage in their lease to protect them,” said Commissioner Henry Jordan.
“When it comes before the planning board/ board of adjustment, that may be a good time to suggest to the landowner and operator of the ordinance,” said Commissioner Ray Freeman.
Baptiste said she would have to meet with the county attorney to see if the county can legally have input into a private contract and the board of adjustments can then make that recommendation. She added that when applications are made for special use permits, she ensures that the person making that request is given a copy of county ordinances.
“When someone is leasing land or buying land, they will be represented by an attorney,” noted Owens. “He will instruct them on what to do. What we need to do is develop our ordinance and make the individuals involved in such transactions aware there is an ordinance.”
Baptiste said she will take the commissioners’ concerns before the planning board. She was encouraged by Hofler to share those concerns this month.