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Hertford County adopts revised ordinance

WINTON – The Hertford County Board of Commissioners have adopted a revised version of the county’s land use ordinance, one that sparked numerous negative comments from local citizens who stood opposed to plans to build more solar farms, particularly in the Millennium area.

However, county officials used a moratorium that was in place since October of last year to put tougher restrictions in place for solar farm developers. Those new restrictions are a part of the revised land use ordinance.

At last week’s meeting, the commissioners heard from both sides of the issue.

Steve Marsh, a local landowner, expressed he was in favor of solar farm expansion.

“Hertford County has the opportunity to be at the forefront of our country’s energy transformation,” Marsh said. “With your leadership and guidance, this county can elevate itself to the next level.”

Marsh spoke of the tax revenues received from solar farms that will “benefit the entire county.”

“Farmers can diversify their holdings and their land with a steady and dependable income from these solar projects,” he noted.

Marsh said he didn’t entirely agree with the 200-foot setback regulation in the newly worded county ordinance, referencing the distance that a solar farm must be from all borders of an adjoining property.

“That’s too excessive,” Marsh said of the 200-foot buffer, adding that he had no problem with that specific distance when there were homes nearby. “But when the [solar] panels back up against Ahoskie Swamp or is surrounded by timberland or [farm] fields, there’s little chance someone will build there. I think the setback regulations need to be tailored to each specific situation.”

Joel Skinner was among the majority of those attending the meeting who expressed their opposition for solar farm expansion.

“We’ve seen all these solar farms come up and destroy all the trees and the lumber,” Skinner remarked. “The habitat, the wildlife, out there has no where to go. The [new proposed] solar farm will push up next to the home my parents own. We don’t want to see all the timber taken down to put up metal panels. The property values will fall. It’s detrimental to the prosperity of others living there.”

Mike Vaughan addressed the board in his role of president of the Millennium Water Association (MWA). Vaughan expressed concerned with public safety, saying the MWA has water wells very close to where a new solar farm is being proposed.

“They [solar panels] have to be 500 feet away from our wells,” Vaughan said. “That’s still not far enough for me because they still put off a residue and neutralize the soil. My biggest concern is the 300 homes we serve in Millennium with water. If our water becomes contaminated we have no way to provide water.”

Keith Melton told the commissioners he had an 11-page petition filled with the names of local citizens who are opposed to any more solar farms.

“They [solar farms] are an eyesore; just ride down highway 11 and look at them….no maintenance, no upkeep; vegetation growing within a community that’s otherwise well-kept,” Melton stated.

Ryan Gilchrist, who represents a solar development company, praised the planning board for the work they did on revising the ordinance.

“The primary components of the ordinance do a fantastic job addressing the concerns of solar farms being safe, quiet, and essentially invisible,” he noted. “With a couple of tweaks it could be something that the [solar] industry could actually work with and still bring revenue opportunity to this county.”

Among the “tweaks” he referenced were to tailor the setbacks based upon the neighboring tracts….shorter distances when the panels are placed near woodsland or agricultural fields.

“A 200-foot setback in those instances is a waste of space,” Gilchrist remarked.

Gilchrist addressed some of the misconceptions about solar farms, saying they do not release chemicals into the ground, and the life expectancy of a facility is 45 years, after which time the panels will be removed and recycled, with the cost covered by the solar company.

“The company I work for has a commitment to improve biodiversity on all of our sites; we want to leave the land better than we found it,” he said.

Commissioner Leroy Douglas referred to Hertford County as a, “solar farm junkyard.” He asked Gilchrist if his company was looking at constructing solar farms in neighboring Bertie County where Douglas said, “there’s a whole lot more land and no feedback.”

Douglas stressed that Hertford County officials would rather have major industry – “to bring jobs to our citizens,” he said, “in the same places you want to put a solar farm. If we keep allowing solar farms, industry won’t have anywhere to go.”

Answering a question from Commissioner Bill Mitchell about the loss of nutrients in the soil where a solar farm is built, Gilchrist said it was untrue that the land could no longer be used for farming.

Cecelia Bracy, a landowner living adjacent to a proposed new solar farm, read from a letter authored by herself and her neighbors that stated they opposed the rezoning of land in the area of Hollowell Road, St. John/Millennium Road, and the entire area of Millennium for the purpose of constructing a solar farm.

“We have been given an estimate of 4,000 acres to be affected,” Bracy read from the letter.

The letter cited a disruption in the lives of Millennium area residents, farmers and hunters. It also claimed that property values will fall.

“Solar farms will affect the beauty of our rural community. They will be an eyesore to property owners and visitors,” the letter stated, which also noted the lack of maintenance to the vegetation currently growing at other local solar farms.

Additionally, the letter addressed damage done to Holloman Road that remains unrepaired after the opening of a solar farm along that highway.

Later in the discussion, Douglas said he would like to see the portion of the county’s land use ordinance pertaining to solar farms, “as restrictive as legally possible.”

Commissioner Andre Lassiter inquired what happens if the board opted not to approve the revised ordinance.

“If you approve it, Hertford County will be one of the most restrictive county [via regulations for solar farms]; without it we will be one of the least restrictive,” County Planning Director Sara Turner replied.

“So, without this ordinance it goes back to a free-for-all with the minimum setbacks at 50 feet instead of 200 feet and without the requirements of landscape buffers,” Lassiter observed.

Turner went on to point out that the revised ordinance removes solar farm facilities by permitted use in all zoning districts and now restricts them to special use by permit only in a RA 30 (Residential Agriculture) district.

Douglas asked if the county could refuse to allow any additional solar farms to be constructed in the future.

“We have too many now,” Douglas stated.

“I think it would require for a court to decide what too many is,” Turner replied, adding that according to her calculations, the 19 solar farms now in operation consume less than one percent of the land in the county.

“The issue is where they’re located,” Douglas stressed.

Turner explained that once an application is made to build a new solar farm, that paperwork goes to the county’s Board of Adjustment, who meets the second Tuesday of each month. A public hearing is scheduled for that application where all adjacent landowners are notified by mail as well as a public notice published in the newspaper in advance of that hearing.

“It’s up to that five-member Board of Adjustment to make a decision to accept or deny that application, which must meet all of our regulations,” Turner said.

“So, what I’m hearing from you is an application is not an automatic approval; citizens still have the opportunity to have their voices heard before the Board of Adjustment,” Lassiter stated.

“That is correct,” Turner replied. “That was the purpose of changing the application from a permitted use to special use.”

Lassiter motioned for the adoption of the revised zoning ordinance. Mitchell offered a second and the motion was approved without objection.

In a related manner, the board failed to offer a motion to rescind the county’s existing moratorium on the issuance of building, zoning, special use permits for solar farm facility development. However, that moratorium, which has been in place since Oct. 19, 2020, automatically expires today (June 30).

The commissioners enacted the moratorium to give the county time to consider solar farm development by way of zoning, setbacks, landscaping, fencing, vegetative buffering, insurance requirements, loss of farmland, soil types, aesthetics, impact on agriculture-related businesses in the county, possible decline in adjoining property valuations, environmental effects, evaluation of state and federal regulations, expressed public opinion, the county’s land use plan, and decommissioning plans of such facilities at the end of their life expectancy. Those issues were addressed within the newly adopted zoning ordinance.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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