Northampton Commissioners enact solar moratorium

Published 5:25 pm Friday, July 23, 2021

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JACKSON – Anyone wishing to obtain a permit to construct a solar farm facility in Northampton County will now have to wait until next year to do so.

The Northampton Board of Commissioners approved a moratorium at their meeting here on July 19 that will put a pause on issuing permits for new solar facilities within the county until January 31, 2022.

A public hearing was held first to consider different viewpoints on the matter. A total of three written comments were submitted before the hearing.

The first was a brief comment by a county citizen, Mary Faison, simply asking why the commissioners were considering a moratorium.

The second comment was submitted by Linda Nwadike, a representative of SunEnergy1, the company which has already constructed solar farms in the county and surrounding area. Nwadike spoke in favor of solar facilities, stating that the technology is safe and has been used for decades, and that the facilities are only taking up a very small portion of available farmland in the county.

The final comment was from Lawrence A. Watts, Jr., an engineer and resident of Greenville who was not in favor of solar facilities. He claimed that the facilities do not generate as much electric power as is often promised, noting that they don’t mention how many kilowatts per hour are produced by the solar farm.

In addition to the public comments, Northampton County Code Enforcement Director William Flynn provided some statistics about how many solar facilities are in the county.

“If my count is correct, we have 15 farms at this time, totaling about 6,200 acres,” Flynn explained, noting that 12 of those had already been constructed while the other three were in progress.

He also stated that their office had received a request to expand one facility and two requests for permits for some smaller facilities. His count also did not include solar facilities located within the jurisdiction of any Northampton municipalities, but added that there were facilities located in Garysburg and Woodland.

Commissioner Joyce Buffaloe asked if Flynn had a map of all the current locations.

He answered no, but noted that the majority of facilities were located throughout the county east of Gaston, and his department could put a map together.

“I think that’d be helpful to see it,” Buffaloe replied.

Board Chair Charles Tyner has mentioned at several previous meetings the possibility of a solar farm moratorium, noting that the board has received several calls from residents who are concerned about property values, safety, the loss of farmland, and more.

“All we want to be is proactive,” he explained at Monday’s meeting about the moratorium proposal.

“It’s not that we do not want more solar farms. I hope the public understands that,” Tyner emphasized. “It does not mean we will not have more solar farms. It just means we’re going to do it in an organized, systematic way in Northampton County.”

“We just want to make sure we’re doing the right thing,” added Commissioner Geneva Faulkner.

She recalled previous discussions about solar facilities in Northampton County going back several years, noting that they have heard “both sides” of the issue. Now they’re looking for recommendations on how to proceed, and they’ll get those answers while the moratorium is in place.

“Most other counties have tasked their Planning Boards with investigating and studying solar farms within their county,” explained Northampton County Attorney Scott McKellar. “And this moratorium also would task our Planning Board with looking into the matter, completing a study, and making recommendations to this board.”

Tyner added that they would also have the opportunity to work with people from NC State University to research information as well.

According to the text of the moratorium, more information is needed in several areas in order to fully evaluate the county’s approach to planning solar facilities. That information includes studies on the loss of farmland, soil types, aesthetics, impact on agriculture-related businesses in the county, possible decline in adjoining property valuations, environmental effects, zoning, setbacks, vegetative buffering, decommissioning plans, insurance requirements, and more.

The text also stated that, without a moratorium, “there are no alternative ways to prevent unsound development since large sections of the county’s planning jurisdiction are zoned to allow development of solar farm facilities.”

During the moratorium period, no permits will be issued for new construction or expansion. It will not, however, prevent the issuance of permits applicable to any tract of land one acre or less, or applicable to a solar collector with an accessory use independent of a solar farm facility.

The pause on new permits will not affect any project which was already issued a permit beforehand.

After the public hearing, Faulkner motioned to approve the moratorium, and Commissioners Nicole Boone and Kelvin Edwards both seconded. The vote was unanimously in favor.

“We’ll be a county that’s diverse,” Tyner said, emphasizing that they wanted to be able to find a balance in the county between farmland, forestry, and solar facilities.

As previously reported by the News Herald, the county commissioners in neighboring Hertford County enacted their own solar facility moratorium last year to explore putting tougher restrictions in place for solar farm developers. Those restrictions, which included a new 200-foot setback regulation, became a part of the county’s revised land use ordinance which was approved last month. Their moratorium automatically expired on June 30.