Studying all angles

Published 11:16 am Tuesday, September 19, 2017

MURFREESBORO – The room was packed with people here this past Wednesday at Murfreesboro Town Council’s regular meeting. The reason? A solar farm permit application was up for consideration.

Representatives from both sides of the issue explained and answered questions to give Town Council a better understanding of the proposal and its potential positive and negative impacts before they came to a decision on whether or not to grant the conditional use permit.

The property in question is located on Collin Road near Highway 11, which is still within Murfreesboro’s one-mile Extraterritorial Jurisdiction (ETJ) even though it falls outside the town limits. Cyprus Creek Renewables, who have built a multitude of solar farm projects all over North Carolina and in several other states, is the company that will construct and maintain the solar farm.

Attorney Mike Fox appeared before the Council on behalf of Cyprus Creek to explain their position. In his introductory summary he mentioned several points in favor: solar farms are permitted under the property’s current zoning, there shouldn’t be negative impact on property values based on studies conducted by a certified appraiser, it’s near already existing electrical infrastructure, and it doesn’t produce and odors or noise.

“These types of solar farms don’t have any kind of storage on them,” he continued. “There’s no batteries or anything like that that could potentially leak anything toxic. All the energy that’s produced from these solar farms go right into the main grid that the electric company uses and is distributed primarily locally.”

Council member Hal Thomas had a number of questions for both Mike Fox and Steve Evans, one of the managers of the solar project also in attendance at the meeting. Thomas’ first question was regarding the map distributed to the Council members. Both he and Councilman Bill Theodorakis were concerned that it looked like the solar farm perimeter infringed on the neighboring property line.

“I can assure you we’re not building on anybody else’s property,” Fox answered, citing an error with superimposing the outline onto the map to make it appear closer than it actually will be.

Fox also verified that all equipment structures are required to be at least 50 feet from all other property owners and 100 feet from any residence.

“We don’t want to create a problem for anybody,” Fox said. “Our experience doing a lot of these across the state, it’s very possible to be good neighbors.”

Thomas also asked about the vegetative buffer that is supposed to surround the farm and block it from view. Additionally, Theodorakis wanted to know whether the buffer would encompass the entire perimeter.

“We come in and we use plants and trees that are native to the area that have the best chance of living and growing,” Fox answered while adding an affirmative yes to Theodorakis’ concern.

Evans added later in regards to the same subject that the vegetative buffer is supposed to be 20 feet high, and they will also erect a six-foot fence with barbed wire for security purposes.

Continuing his line of questioning, Thomas asked about the need for additional poles or lines to connect to the grid and how big they might be. Evans answered they should not require additional pole lines outside of the few they need to connect breakers to, and those poles would be standard size.

“We will not be bringing in three-tier lines outside of what is currently already on the property,” Evans confirmed.

Evans also answered yes to whether the solar farm would connect to the local grid or not.

Mayor John Hinton continued to facilitate discussion by asking if anyone in the audience wanted to speak in favor of the proposed solar farm.

The property owner and her daughter both briefly spoke about why they would like their request granted, and said they appreciated Council’s consideration.

Hinton then asked for comments from people opposed to the project.

The neighbor whose house is closest to the proposed solar farm went before the Council to share her concerns.

“[The map] shows the project coming right to my property line. I am very pleased to hear that is not the case. I am also pleased to hear that they do not expect to have three-tier transmission lines because that was one of my big concerns as well,” she acknowledged at the beginning of her remarks before continuing with the points she was still concerned about.

Water drainage was a main concern, which has been a problem on Collin Road for years, she said. According to her, runoff from the property in question goes directly to the road, so she was concerned that the installation of the solar farm might exacerbate the issue.

Another concern she had was about maintenance of the vegetative buffer.

“If you’ll look at some of the [solar] farms around that are visible from the road, they are not maintained. How can we depend on that,” she asked. “What do they consider proper maintenance? I would like more information on that.”

She continued by asking what would happen to the solar farm project if the company (Cyprus Creek Renewables) went out of business. She also spoke on behalf of another neighbor who was unable to attend the meeting, citing concerns about property values and the condition of the ground if the solar farm is removed at a later date.

“I am opposed as probably anyone in here would be if it was coming up in your backyard. But I also understand that business is business. These are my concerns,” she concluded.

Hinton allowed Fox the opportunity to address those concerns. The attorney explained that, in regards to the drainage issue, they were required by law to not cause additional draining issues outside of ones that already exist. He also suggested that the solar farm may even improve drainage because grass underneath the panels should provide more ground cover than previous crops on the land.

Fox’s answer to the maintenance issue was simply to remind everyone that with the conditional use permit, they’re required to keep the buffer maintained or the permit will be revoked.

He also addressed the concern about the company staying in business by explaining that they’re a “thriving industry and business.” And if Cyprus Creek somehow did fold, he said any other company would be happy to come in and take over, and that the scrap value for the material is quite high.

A few citizens in attendance also spoke in opposition to the solar farm, citing concerns about the growing amount of these solar projects surrounding the town.

The mayor also asked for the town’s Planning Board recommendation. The Board said they were leaving it in the hands of the Council, but that they did not vote in favor of the proposed project.

Patricia Harris, the newest member of the Planning Board, spoke briefly about why she was opposed, explaining she didn’t believe the solar farm would bring revenue to the town. There was a bit of discussion between Harris and Councilman Theodorakis on that point. Theodorakis argued that the people constructing and maintaining the solar farms spend money within the town, and therefore is beneficial to overall economic development.

Once both sides had finished presenting their positions, it was up to the Council to decide whether to grant the permit or not.

Councilman Thomas motioned to allow the permit on the condition that the solar farm would not create any additional water flow onto adjoining properties and that the vegetative buffer will be maintained. Theodorakis seconded the motion.

The vote was unanimously in favor of approval.